Flying High: Reflections on GEO Jobe’s UAV Division with Jeff Lawrence

The beginning of the year is always a great time to reflect on the past and look toward the future. Here at GEO Jobe, we’ve noticed a steady growth in the demand for our UAV Services over the past several years, and there are plenty of signs indicating that growth will only continue. For more information, we sat down to talk with Jeff Lawrence, who’s been flying UAV for several years.

Q: You’ve been working in UAV for a number of years. What first interested you in the field?

A: That’s right. I started the first of January 2017, so just over 3 years with GEO Jobe UAV. Being able to actually produce orthos with higher resolution and accuracy than the ones I got accustomed to using with GIS was the main attraction.

Q: How has working in UAV changed over the years?

A: It’s changing all the time, still. But, since we began, we now use different drones than back then. Battery life is longer, which makes flying bigger sites more practical. Drones now have improved integrated GPS, which means setting ground control points is no longer required. This makes flying more inaccessible sites feasible. It also saves time on all sites. Our development team has also created an application that corrects each individual photo in a mission – sometimes thousands – for the height above ellipsoid shift that has to be done for our clients. We have also added a fixed wing platform to our fleet of drones. These are excellent for even larger jobs.

Q: What are some current trends in UAV?

A: The vertical-takeoff-and-landing fixed wing drones are really making a big surge. Combining LiDAR and RGB sensors on drones for colorized 3D point clouds is a recent trend. Costs are coming down on the LiDAR drone systems too, so I think you’ll see more and more LiDAR usage.

Q: As someone who has worked in the field for a while, where do you see the future of UAV going?

A: Well, the sky – up to 400ft – is the limit! UAVs are being used for search and rescue operations for everything from dementia patient walk offs to avalanche survivors. They will soon be a standard tool for the construction, engineering, and inspection industries. Unmanned vehicles are now being used to map underwater surfaces. It won’t be long before the beyond visual line of sight restriction gets modified or lifted altogether. That will open up more opportunities for mapping pipeline right-of-ways and above ground utility lines. It’s not hard to imagine that ground penetrating radar is in the UAV future.

Q: You work as a UAV pilot as well as in handling the business side of GEO Jobe’s UAV division. How has working in both roles impacted the way you approach either one?

A: Working both sides of UAV projects has impacted how I think about pricing the UAV jobs. Our current model uses acreage as a proxy for how complex a job is going to be. We have found that size is really just one aspect of how complicated a job is. More times than not, we get on a job only to find that it takes much longer than planned to get the job done. Pricing jobs by time is going to be the way of our future.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced working in UAV?

A: It’s rare to show up on site for a job to find it is what you expected during the planning. The unexpected things you find on sites that make you have to modify the plan or mission on the fly on site is frequently a challenge in general. Specifically, finding cell towers, buildings, or cranes that are taller than the altitude you want to fly is probably the biggest challenge to overcome. Showing up to fly a beach community and discovering low-flying-banner-towing airplanes are flying smackdab in the middle of your missions created some complications once too. Crop dusters and red tail hawks create their own issues. Fire ants can also be distracting.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of working in UAV?

A: Helping clients get the data they need quicker and more safely than by traditional methods is really quite satisfying. Honestly, just getting some jobs done and getting everything home intact is rewarding too.

Q: In recent years, Christine Munisteri has taken an increased role in terms of working with GEO Jobe’s UAV team. What’s it like bringing a newer pilot “under your wing”?

A: Even though she has only recently increased her UAV role, Christine is still an experienced pilot and brings a lot of knowledge to our jobs. It’s great to have another set of eyes and hands on jobs. It is rewarding to be able to pass along the mapping and geodesy aspects that are so critical to the kind of UAV work we do.

Q: Do you enjoy being in the field capturing imagery or in the office producing the data more?

A: I have to admit being able to get outdoors and call it work is pretty enjoyable. We often see some very unusual things while we’re out on jobs.

Q: What is your favorite drone / equipment to use?

A: That’s not so easy. We use quad-copters and fixed wing platforms. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. If I had to pick, I guess I would go with the quad, simply because overall it is the more versatile of the two platforms.

Q: What programs do you use to process your imagery and create maps?

A: We use Pix4D to process the imagery. We use ArcGIS Pro, and Virtual Surveyor to manipulate the point clouds and DSMs into TINS to make topo surfaces.

Q: Can you tell us about some of your favorite jobs you’ve flown?

A: I like the construction jobs best of all. It’s kind of fun being part of the development process.

Q: Do you have any tips for someone interested in the field?

A: Anyone interested in this field should be prepared to plan for the unexpected. Be good at identifying risks and ways to mitigate them.

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Courtney Kirkham

Application Developer

Courtney is an enthusiastic and motivated GEODev with a focus on web development. She works as a member of our Professional Services team building custom Web Appbuilder Widgets and stand-alone applications. When not working, Courtney relaxes by gardening, practicing shotokan karate, and playing board games.