Flying High with a UAS Adventurer

December 17, 2015

Several years ago Chris McFadzean, owner/operator of Epiphany Mapping, took the plunge and purchased a UAS (unmanned aircraft system). The plucky move opened McFadzean up to a world of new opportunities in high-resolution, high-accuracy orthophotography all over New Zealand. And now Chris is working the long, albeit flexible, hours it takes to meet the demand his new business venture has created.

After little more than four years in the orthophotographic business, Chris McFadzean has logged more than 1,500 UAS flights, making him one of the most experienced UAS pilots in the geospatial arena. Chris’s work takes him and his Trimble UX5 Unmanned Aircraft System all over New Zealand, with jobs that comprise one or two flights, or up to several weeks of all-day flying. Averaging between 5 and 30 flights per week, Chris predominantly orthophotographs farmland. However, he also performs quantity surveying for mines and quarries, contouring, stock piling and erosion monitoring.

Chris grew up on farms located in several different parts of New Zealand, and chose his career out of love for the land. He also comes from a family of innovative problem-solvers, and he combines that entrepreneurial can-do attitude with a desire to be hands-on with technology. So, after selling a company that he co-founded and worked at for 15 years, he decided that orthophotography via UAS was a business initiative that “could work.”

Chris now holds an exclusivity contract with AgHub, which evolved from his previous business, that is now a division of a farmer owned cooperative called Ballance Agri Nutrients. Ballance is considered to be New Zealand's largest fertilizer supplier to farmers, while AgHub complements that offering with Web-based farm systems software and a premier mapping service. It enables farmers to capture a wealth of information about their operations, of which a key component is an all-inclusive and accurate farm map. That’s where Chris’s business comes in.

Using a Trimble UX5, Chris provides clients with comprehensive maps that clearly detail assets, boundaries, hazardous areas, farm and paddock areas, drainage and other features—even in remote areas that are not accessible by land-based vehicle or foot. Chris’s farming clients use the maps to help them make informed decisions on a wide range of farm management issues.

At about the same time New Zealand dairy farmers are preparing for their first milking, Chris is leaving his central North Island home to drive to the job site—4:00 a.m. starts are necessary to capture the earliest light possible for flying. “Daylight time is money,” says Chris. He typically tries to schedule two smaller jobs (comprising 1 or 2 flights) for the same day, in which case the early start allows driving time in-between each job at around noon.

Fortunately the Trimble UX5 is easy to set up, so Chris can quickly become productive on the job site. Upon arrival Chris positions ground markers and locates a suitable area of land to launch his UAS, which he controls via Trimble Access™ field software on a Trimble Tablet rugged PC. A flat landing location is not absolutely necessary—Chris finds that a gentle slope is acceptable provided the ground is smooth, as rough or rutted ground may prevent a UAS from skimming easily during landing. “Finding the right spot for takeoff isn’t usually the biggest challenge,” says Chris. “The trickiest part is making sure the wind won’t cause a problem, especially for landings.”

The environment Chris operates in puts his UAS through its paces, since wind is a virtual constant in New Zealand and its direction can change quickly. “Fortunately the Trimble UX5 is rock solid and extremely reliable to fly even in choppy air,” says Chris. “And it produces clear, not blurry, imagery in those conditions.”

The Trimble UX5 enables Chris to fly in formations that are flexible to suit the land he is surveying. In many UASs flight paths are limited to rectangular and square shapes, but Chris can now easily match flights to the boundaries of the farms and other job sites he flies over. This capability saves considerable time on many jobs, and also gives Chris the flexibility to land the Trimble UX5 in a location different from takeoff.

Another unique aspect of Chris’s work environment is New Zealand’s extremes of topography in combination with civil aviation regulations. Flying a UAS at more than 125 m (400 ft) is prohibited, so when the Trimble UX5 is flying over rugged terrain, Chris has to lean on every bit of his 1,500+ flights’ worth of experience. The river beds with high embankments that he surveys as part of erosion monitoring are particularly daunting—some are thousands of feet high—and require him to plan each flight carefully so he can collect high-quality data without damage to the UAS. “Yeah, I hit a few hillsides in the early days,” says Chris with a bemused laugh. “But I chose to work in the countryside, so I guess that risk is all part of it. An urban area wouldn’t present the same challenge.” Where the terrain is rugged and hard to reach, the Trimble UX5 delivers data more quickly and safely than a traditional survey would.

Because the Trimble UX5 is so uniquely stable in the air, and because he’s such an advanced user, Chris is able to stretch the UAS’s capabilities in the contrary winds that occur on steep hillsides and underneath mountains—often these wind conditions are different from those at the takeoff and landing locations at lower elevation. If the wind is gentle enough, Chris can use his experience to avoid dangerous objects such as a cliff faces, regardless of direction.

One of the largest jobs Chris has ever surveyed was approximately 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) in the central North Island for a local iwi (Maori tribe). The job had to be completed as quickly as possible--as grass grew in the warm summer weather the appearance of the land changed dramatically, which made stitching together the data from discrete flights very difficult. By flying from dawn to dusk, and surveying in ground marks after dark, Chris completed the job in about three weeks.

 “I mulled over the idea of a UAS investment for years,” says Chris. “And now I’m really pleased with the decision. Orthophotogrammetric surveys are brilliant for large tracts of land and you can collect enormous amounts of data very quickly and safely.” Once a job is complete, Chris processes the data to a point where he can deliver a DTM and orthophoto—either to the client directly or to AgHub.

Chris‘ flexible lifestyle as the owner/operator of a UAS-based business suits his young family and takes him all over the countryside that he loves. As demand for map services such as his expand across the country, it seems that taking the plunge was a worthwhile adventure indeed. 

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