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Price comparisons between UAV, Aircraft and Satellite images in Remote sensing

Aerial Images captured by traditional tools like aeroplanes and satellite cost quite high, whereas drone-based imaging lauded by manufacturers and service providers cost low. An Internet search will reveal the concrete figures.

Sketching out direct comparisons between three technologies (airplanes, satellites and drones) is quite difficult. The pricing is commercially sensitive and cost effective but depends on the requirements, the different sectors which are being operated and what kind of business model is.

Unit price is the area where the price comparison is relatively simple. The total cost of the launch and operation of the Landsat 8 imaging satellite was estimated by NASA to be in the region of $855m. A Cessna 172 airplane, a model regularly used for aerial imaging, will set you back roughly $300,000. A professional automated mapping drone like sense Fly’s eBee RTK will cost you about $25,000, while DJI’s Phantom 3 drone, which hovers on the border of the consumer and professional markets, is around $1,000.

Satellite operation is out of reach of any citizens or organization however big are they. It is being only operated by the governments of respective countries. For businesses whose core activity is not providing imagery as a service, who are interested in doing their own mapping and surveying the cost of an aircraft will also be prohibitive. While in some countries an amount to make a pilot is similar in training and licensing a drone operator, But the cost of buying, storing and maintaining an airplane will veil those associated with drone.

In the recent years drone is posing a tough completion against the other two solutions, as the price of drained has fallen and regulations in their use has been relaxed. This is particularly evident in the field of aerial photography. If someone pays $1,000, he/she will likely get an hour for aerial imaging whereas he/she would get the whole day for drone imaging. Average prices per area are comparable between the two, but while drones can achieve that rate on just a few hectares, the high hourly price of aerial photography means those rates can only be achieved on large projects.

But despite the lower hourly cost of drones, when dealing with larger commercial applications the other two technologies can take advantage of economies of scale. Imagery from the Landsat 8 satellite is available for free at a resolution of 30m and the RapidEye satellite system provides 5m resolution images for as low as $1.28/km2. High precision imagery from satellites like the GeoEye-1 start at around $25/km2 for images at 50cm resolution. For use in precision agriculture, American firm Satshot processes images and they charge $0.50 per acre ($123.50/km2) for RapidEye imagery and $0.25 for Landsat ($61.75/km2).

Using satellites image Cost to acquisition in USD per km2 vs Resolution

Pricing per acre is much harder to come by for aerial and drone imagery services, but quoted figures tend to be around the $3-5/acre ($741-1,235/km2) mark for images designed for use in agriculture. However, minimum orders of between 100km2 for high resolution satellites and as much as 500km2 for medium resolution ones like RapidEye mean that comparative costs rise steeply for smaller projects.

In case of Satellite, it only visits any area roughly for every three days moreover poor weather conditions can also hold up imaging. Resolutions measured in meters tend to be good enough for large scale projects in agriculture, resource exploration and land-use planning, but for detailed surveying work or 3D mapping the resolution available from satellites is not up to the mark.

New companies are beginning to bring these costs down though, by leveraging web technology and advanced route planning to service multiple customers in a single flight. Californian start-up Terr Avion provides farmers with a web interface that lets them highlight their field on a map and then offers them regular imagery throughout the season for as little as $0.73/acre. Similarly, GeoVantage has a fleet of more than 20-planes constantly flying over the US and can turnaround have processed images suitable for anything from agriculture to urban planning in under 48 hours for just $1.80/acre.

In determining nitrogen application across a massive agribusiness, for monitoring tree counts in forests or for geologist in searching for mineral deposits, mapping larger areas drone play important role and it will be able to compete with airplanes and satellites, until there are some drastically changes among them.

Drones are able to fly in a matter of hours, making it possible to react quickly to sudden events. For a farmer wanting to assess the damage to his crops following a hail storm or government wanting to an oil company wanting to investigate a sudden drop in pressure in a pipeline, the economic benefit of receiving information quickly can vastly outweigh acquisition costs.

The real price of drones doesn't lie in price per area, but for its ability to fly so close to the ground and being able to achieve resolutions of just a few centimeters and capture imagery at unprecedented oblique angles, which the other solutions can't. This ability helps to provide accurate stand count corn fields and to create high precision 3D models of everything from bridges to refinery flare stakes. This kind of close in view was previously only possible with helicopters, but their daily rental costs are in the region of $10,000 rather than $1,000 for a drone.

Over the past few years, drones have become central to the functions of various business and governmental organizations and have managed to pierce through areas where certain industries were lagging behind. Drones are proving to be extremely beneficial in places where man can't reach or is unable to perform in an efficient way.

Kingshuk Bera


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