Feature – Partly Cloudy: The UAV Data Concern

The UAV Data Concern

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) that can film extended flights and gather data in 4K Video, LiDAR, or using other sensors create a huge cloud data storage issue. Since the data may reveal sensitive information about key property, progress, or infrastructure, how will you ensure data security and integrity? One of the key components of any data management plan is access control, and there are a number of things any company looking to enter the UAV data collection industry should consider.

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

A 3.3 Billion Dollar Industry

The UAV or drone industry is estimated to be worth $3.3 billion, and includes commercial, recreational, and military drones. The military was the first industry to experiment extensively with UAVs in applications ranging from surveillance to laser targeting.

As the technology became more mainstream many companies like DJ1 focused on the recreational market, targeting hobbyists and others who wanted to fly and even record their flights using cameras and quadcopters.

Industries began to see the potential. Amazon is testing drones for delivery in the UK, where regulations are easier to deal with, but once the FAA figures out the future licensing of drones in the United States, the company will expand these operations domestically. Google is also testing drones for delivery in Australia under the name Project Wing, and plans to deploy a more expansive delivery program in 2017, although they won’t say where.

Filmmakers also embraced the technology, and before drones were equipped with cameras, they modified them and filmed dramatic scenes they would have otherwise needed a helicopter or other expensive equipment to film.

But there are many other ways drones can be put to work. Goldman Sachs estimates the industry will be worth $100 billion by 2020, with industries ranging from construction to cinematography.

Internal vs. Outsourcing

Will industries create internal positions for drone pilots and UAV data specialists, or will they outsource them? It’s a good question, and one of many with a mixed answer: it depends.

Some industries will want to keep data in house, and be responsible for their own data collection, storage, and security. Other, smaller companies do not possess the infrastructure or volume of data to support their own department, and may be more inclined to hire out these services.

This means opportunities in this field will be diverse: a professional could be working for a department within a company or for a company that specializes in UAV operations, data gathering, collections, and security. Either way, the issues are the same

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Data Collection

This is the relatively easy part, although speed and data capacity are an issue as drones can log longer flight times. Samsung is developing SD cards and other memory products specifically designed for drones as are other companies.

Transferring the data to a local server or hard drive is relatively simple, However, sharing the data is where things start to get a little more complicated.

Data Storage and Sharing

Most video footage or sensor data gathered by a UAV needs to remain private to one extent or another. However, you need to provide access to clients and other parties, otherwise the data is useless. So the data must be securely stored but in a way that it can still be selectively shared. Many GIS platforms like GEOPowered Cloud already use the cloud for ArcGIS functions without the expense of having their own on-site servers.

Photo Credit:  GEO Jobe

“Securely sharing confidential data is one of the great conundrums of our time,” says Shawn Surber, a cyber security consultant. “The first thing to realize when sharing confidential data electronically is that you are accepting a certain degree of risk. If that risk is unacceptable to you, then you’ll need to find another way to share the data.”

Even if your organization is large enough to have an encrypted email system, most UAV data files are too large to share this way. Before you even share the data at all, you’ll need to find a way to secure it. This involves a couple of steps.

“First, you should password protect the file,” Surber says. “That’s akin to locking the door on your house; it won’t stop a dedicated burglar, but it prevents casual theft.” Many software applications offer this feature, but if not “you can compress (zip/tar/etc.) the file and add a password using that tool.” Compressing the file also makes it smaller, and easier to transmit.

Second, the file needs to be backed up in one form or another. It sounds basic, but much of the time UAV data is difficult or impossible to reproduce exactly and expensive to create. While there are data recovery services available regardless of where you save the data initially, an irreversible data loss can be catastrophic.

Moving your data to the cloud can be a part of this step, but if not should be the next one. The question becomes how to do this, and how to do so securely.

UAV Cloud Data

The size of UAV Data files makes their transfer to the cloud can be problematic and time consuming. At the same time, the data you are uploading needs to be secure. Depending on who your web services provider is, you have a few options.

Amazon Web Services offers a couple of unique approaches. The first is a “Snowball” service. Amazon ships you an 80 TB device which you can load your data on using a 10Gbps (10 gigabytes per second) Ethernet cable, and the device has just been upgraded for more storage and faster transfers.

The second is their new Snowmobile service. A literal truck comes to your location with a 45-foot-long shipping container full of hard drives. plug in to your servers via fiber, and copy up to 100 petabytes (a petabyte is 1 million gigabytes) of data. That truck returns to an Amazon data center where data is uploaded to Amazon’s cloud data storage services.

Sound like a farfetched amount of data? One of Amazon’s first customers for the service is DigitalGlobe, who is transferring 100 petabyes of satellite imagery to Amazon using one of these trucks. This service means you could  ship one exabyte (or 1,000 petabytes) six months which would take roughly 26 years over a Snowball like 10 Gbps connection.

For individual files you could use a cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox, although upload and download times could be lengthy. “If you utilize a file sharing service, ensure that when you share the file or folder that you only grant permission to view or edit to the email addresses of your collaborators,” Shawn Surber warns. “The default setting for most file sharing services is to allow anyone with the link to view the file.”

Alternatively, you could send an external hard drive or other device containing the file via a shipping service like FedEx or UPS, even the post office. This involves the additional risk of someone physically stealing your data. Although the data itself is backed up, unauthorized persons may have access to the information as well.

Microsoft, Google, IBM, and Oracle are all looking for more and better cloud data solutions. The UAV industry is sure to benefit from these advances. In the meantime, storing UAV data and keeping it secure while being able to share it with your clients and collaborators remains challenging.

But with a looming 100 million dollar plus industry, this challenge is one many companies are anxious to solve.


Troy Lambert is a freelance writer, editor, and non-profit consultant by day, and a suspense thriller author by night. He learned about the power of GIS while working as a researcher at a museum, and is always looking for ways to apply this technology and big data in new and innovative ways. Troy is an avid cyclist, skier, and hiker. He lives, works, and plays in Boise, Idaho. His work can be found at troylambertwrites.com, and you can connect with him on Twitter @tlambertwrites.


Author: GISuser

GISuser, founded by Spatial Media (2003), is the leading online technology, news resource for GIS and mapping professionals

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