Unmanned Aircraft Systems Colorado (http://uascolorado.com/) is a non-profit business organisation that seeks to promote the development of the unmanned aircraft systems industry. UAS provides support to its members in a number of ways, including facilitating networking, seeking business opportunities, advocating public policy and raising awareness on the potential uses of unmanned aircraft systems.
I attended a UAS Colorado networking event at the Air and Space Museum in Denver (http://wingsmuseum.org/). The programme included an interesting presentation from James (Jim) M. Oliver, the owner of Crestone Environmental, LLC., on a survey of radiation levels in abandoned uranium mining sites carried out using a rotary-wing UAV. Uranium mining was intense in the heyday of the Cold War and the nuclear capacity build-up of the U.S.. The mines were progressively abandoned during the seventies and eighties, but mining activities resulted in what experts refer to as technology enhanced natural radiation levels that needs to be monitored. Many of these mines happened to be in north-eastern Arizona, in the territory under the jurisdiction of the Navajo Nation, which commissioned Crestone Environmental to undertake the survey. Using sensors that allowed precise mapping of terrain (using LIDAR technology), obtaining optical imagery and measuring radiation levels, Creston Environmental UAV was able to provide a very accurate picture of what levels of radiation occur where in the areas covered by the survey.
I asked Jim Oliver about the importance of satellite navigation for its work. He explained that GNSS are absolutely critical. Surveying is done at centimetre level precision; a Real Time Kinematic (RTK) device is used at the beginning of the survey to enhance precision position.
I discussed with Jim Oliver whether his business is in competition with businesses using satellite data for possibly similar purposes. In his opinion, the criteria to determine which solution would be the most appropriate are scale, accessibility and cost. Scale refers to the area to be covered, which in the case of UAVs can be very small to relatively large, though not as large as what a satellite could possibly cover. Accessibility has to do not only with the actual availability of UAV versus satellite when a particular job needs to get done, but also with the possible combination of sensors that a UAV can put together versus the need to obtain multiple satellite data streams for a particular survey. Accessibility includes the ability to access certain types of sites and coverage over determined precise periods of time; UAVs may be able take images at angles (such as vertical surfaces) that are virtually impossible for satellites and hover for long periods over a particular spot in a manner that satellites are not designed for. Cost is always an obvious factor. Jim Oliver also pointed out that satellite data may be used in a manner that is complementary to data gathered by UAVs. UAVs have their natural niche and fill a gap that exists between satellite and aerial data services.
I spoke to Sean D. McClung, Chairman of UAS Colorado Board, and with Constantin Diehl, who is responsible for International Business Development at UAS Colorado. They indicated that most of their member companies are very small and work locally, but some have an increasing international projection. We discussed the strong connection between UAS and space infrastructure (notably GNSS and, increasingly, Satcom). Sean and Constantin spoke proudly of the unique UAS testing grounds at the San Luis Valley area and the San Luis Valley Airport in Colorado (http://slvuas.com/), which I hope to visit.