What Do New Commercial Drone Laws Mean for Surveyors?

Daniel Katz - daniel@aerotas.com


Part 107 is great news for land surveyors

When Part 107 goes into effect in August, it will open huge opportunities for businesses across industries to use drones in daily operations. Given the contents of Part 107 and the state of UAV technology, land surveyors stand to benefit more than most industries. Below we highlight some of the key provisions of Part 107 that will impact land surveyors using drones. Note that Part 107 does specifically allow for the FAA to grant waivers to most restrictions in the rule — read more about Part 107 waivers in our previous blog post.


Survey drone operators will not need property owner permission

Prior to Part 107, commercial UAV operators were required to receive permission from any property owner or controller over which their UAV flew. While this appears to be common sense, in practice it presents a substantial hurdle to drone surveyors. In order to capture sufficient images at the edges of a parcel of property for aerial mapping, it is nearly always necessary to fly over at least a sliver of neighboring land. The absence of the requirement to get permission in Part 107 means surveyors will be able to conduct aerial surveys as they do land surveys, going wherever they need to in order to complete their survey.

Line of Sight means a limit of 100 acres per drone flight

Probably the most-discussed restriction in Part 107 is the requirement that the pilot maintain the UAV in sight at all times. While this rule does put a damper on many exciting uses that UAVs are technically capable of accomplishing, its implications for UAV surveyors is less significant. In our real world experience, a pilot can effectively maintain a UAV in sight over a plot of a maximum of 100 acres — assuming the pilot is near the center, and the plot is relatively regular. Given surveyors’ usual need for high resolution, and the battery capacity of most common UAVs, land surveyors are usually covering a maximum of 50 acres per flight, so this requirement does not have a a substantial impact for aerial surveying by drone.

Public agencies can operate as civil drone operators

Part 107 offers much-needed clarity and relief for county surveyors, water districts, and other government agencies that have been trying for years to get permission to survey with UAVs. In a stroke of welcome simplification, the FAA decided that these government agencies may use UAVs in the same way as private entities. They will need no special permissions nor have to abide by any special rules, but will only have to pass the same commercial UAV knowledge test and comply by the same set of rules as private UAV surveyors.

Piloting from a moving vehicle enables right of way drone surveys

Part 107 explicitly allows for piloting a UAV from a moving vehicle as long as it is in a “sparsely populated area.” While the FAA declined to define “sparsely populated,” it did site a previous legal opinion that determined that 20 people per 10 acres is considered "sparse." In real world terms, this means that land surveyors could likely use a mapping drone to survey a right of way. The UAV pilot could maintain line of sight while being driven in a vehicle traveling straight down a right of way corridor — as long as the area is “sparsely populated.” This operation would present logistical and technological challenges, but the legal permission is likely to spur rapid operational and technical innovation.

Restricting flight over nonparticipants limitS drone surveys

One of the most problematic rules that persists in Part 107 is the restriction against flying over people who are not direct participants in the UAV operation. The FAA has been unfortunately specific about what it considers “participants,” and it is very strict, effectively including only the pilot, a spotter, and any security personnel who are keeping others away. This means that survey jobs that need to be done where other people are present — for example active construction sites, inhabited office buildings during working hours, or mall parking lots during open hours — will be problematic via UAV. This rule will likely be one that Aerotas explores getting a waiver for soon after Part 107 goes into effect.

Drone surveyS near airports will be possible via tower permission

While Part 107 does not give blanket approval for operating close to airports, it does at least introduce a significant degree of new flexibility. Operators will have a way to ask for permission from Air Traffic Control towers to conduct UAV surveys near airports. We do not yet know what the process will involve, nor how permissive we can expect the towers to be, but by virtue of creating the option, the FAA is communicating an intention to move towards greater allowance.

While there are still questions to be answered and precedents to be set by the FAA, it is clear that Part 107 is overall good news for surveyors looking to use drones to build their businesses. If you want to learn more about how your survey business can start using drones, contact us at info@aerotas.com.


An aerial map on every job

Announcing the Aerotas Map Package

The FAA's new regulations mean the time has come for surveyors and mappers to start using drones. With the Aerotas Map Package, we are making it as easy as possible.

Aerotas has used our experience consulting for land surveyors and photogrammetrists to develop a full turn-key solution for mapping by drone. This Package incorporates the best practices and best-in-class technologies we have vetted for producing survey-grade, high-resolution aerial orthophotos. It provides high quality, valuable survey deliverables at the lowest cost and learning-curve possible.

Learn more about the Aerotas Map Package here.



Daniel is Cofounder and Head of Strategy of Aerotas. He has a rich background in strategy and innovation consulting, helping businesses from startups to the Fortune 500 identify opportunities for innovation. Daniel is passionate about helping organizations see and incorporate new ideas into their business operations.