Surveying by Drone from a Moving Vehicle


Logan Campbell -

The FAA recently released new drone rules, known as Part 107, that enable all businesses to start using drones legally. One exciting new aspect is the legal ability to operate a drone from a moving vehicle.

Drone operations are limited to within line of sight of the pilot, however now that the pilot can be in a vehicle, the aircraft can be kept within line of sight over longer distances. This dramatically expands the areas that drones can cover, and opens up the possibility of performing mapping or surveying over long distance corridors, such as right-of-way, power lines, and pipelines. In order to test the limits of these new capabilities, we took to the deserts of Southern California to see how to safely fly a drone from a moving vehicle.

In the end, we produced wonderful data. However, there we identified a number of operational challenges that need to be addressed before you can start flying from a moving vehicle regularly.


Current SURVEY DRONE autopilots aren’t good enough

In almost every UAV surveying and mapping application, using drone autopilot leads to safer flights and produces better data. However, most autopilot software that is commercially available is designed for large, open, rectangular areas. Drone surveying linear assets requires terrain tracking, as the altitude can change significantly over long distances. Further, this requires some level of collision or obstacle awareness, as tracking power lines, buildings, and trees can present unexpected obstacles.

Right now, most autopilot technology cannot reliably track terrain nor avoid obstacles, leading us to map this site with manual flight. As expected, even with an experienced pilot at the controls, manual flight led to lower-quality map data.


DRONE Pilot Focus is a serious issue

Operating a drone by autopilot in an open field requires minimal focus, leaving the pilot ample ability to scan the airspace for hazards and monitor aircraft condition. However, the number of things that a pilot must pay attention to when flying manually from a moving vehicle increases dramatically.

The operation demands that the pilot split their focus between numerous factors, including:

  1. Speed of the aircraft
  2. Speed of the vehicle
  3. Distance from aircraft to vehicle
  4. Altitude above ground level
  5. Potential air traffic
  6. Ground location of the aircraft
  7. Camera angle for data collection

This is simply too many factors for any pilot to be able to safely and adequately monitor.

The priority is always keeping the aircraft in safe radio range, and scanning the airspace for hazards, so other variables turned out to be inconsistent. In order to collect better data while allowing the pilot to not be overwhelmed, a good autopilot and additional support crew would be necessary for safe, reliable operations.


Drone survey Crew Requirements are greater than expected

The challenge of pilot multitasking goes beyond the aircraft pilot as well, and includes the driver of the vehicle.

Communication between the pilot and the driver must be extremely good to keep similar speeds and keep the aircraft from getting too far ahead or too far behind. Pacing the aircraft can be a distraction to the driver. As if to prove this point, we blew a tire during the operation when the driver was unable to avoid debris in the road. This would have been avoided with better autopilot and and a designated visual observer in the vehicle, allowing the driver to focus more of his attention on the road, and not on pacing the aircraft.

We determined that a minimum of three crew members is required to safely survey by drone from a moving vehicle: the pilot in command, the driver, and a designated visual observer.


UAV Safety & Emergency Procedures have to Adjust

Existing safety and emergency procedures used for commercial surveyor drone operations are not sufficient for long-distance flights. The most common first line of defense is an automated return to home function on the aircraft. However, even basic multirotors can fly up to 10 miles in a single flight. If the return home procedure were initiated towards the end of a flight, it is unlikely that it would have enough battery to safely return to the launch site. Even if it return home, there wouldn’t be anyone at the launch point to ensure a safe landing zone.

Additionally, the risk of needing an emergency procedure is much higher in operations from moving vehicles, as the aircraft is more likely to fly out of radio range. All of these issues can be solved with proper procedures and software, however they need to be thoughtfully created before any live operation.


The Final drone survey Product

Using Pix4D photogrammetry software, we produced beautiful quality results, despite a popped tire, uneven image spacing, only two overlapping flight lines, and some radio interference during the operation. The operation consisted of 489 photos, in two semi-parallel flight lines, covering roughly one linear mile at an average altitude of 130’ above ground.

Using UAVs to do mapping, surveying, or inspection of long-distance assets is a huge opportunity for a number of different industries. The technological capability to do this exists today, and the law now makes it legal for anyone. However, doing so safely requires a great deal of training and operational know-how. If you are interested in learning how to create safe drone operations from a moving vehicle, drop us a line at To learn more about mapping by drone, visit the Aerotas Mapping System page.