How drones are advancing civil engineering and surveying

Esri's Drone2Map technology is proving drones are an affordable and effective method for engineers.

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Drones are everywhere. High priced and low, they're the decade’s new toy. If you have one, you flaunt it. If you don't, you want one. Regardless, there's no doubt that they are also really making their presence felt throughout industrial applications. From real estate to golfing and farming, they challenge users to come up with new ideas.

Observation

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including drones, provide invaluable help and cost savings with wide views of inaccessible and otherwise difficult and tough to navigate locations. It sends back a full image of the territory to teams planning logistics for next steps.

Overviews reveal assets and challenges, as well as the broad lay of the land. They indicate best access and concerning hazards. The overhead perspective and 360° panoramas relay a real-time scenario. And, with this input, engineering teams can prioritize their approaches. 

Operators can share the imaging with personnel on site, in headquarters and with sub-contractors. Planners can meet virtually to discuss project timing, equipment needs and challenges presented by the terrain.

Surveying

Drones mean a quantum leap for surveying. They provide eyes that can reach and hover above specific sites. Their height and cameras can be adjusted remotely. And, equipped with sensors, they can measure, transmit and store data.

Global positioning has created greater interest in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). According to Drone Analyst, “GIS professionals provide a wide variety of land-related services like identifying property boundaries, subdividing land, and surveying construction sites for placement of buildings. They also produce topographic and hydrographic maps, volumetric calculations for stockpiles, and flood insurance maps, among other services.”

Fueling this growth, the leader in geographic information systems (GIS), Esri, released an application called Drone2Map (D2M) for ArcGIS that's shaking up the civil engineering industry long dependent on manpower. D2M streamlines the creation of professional imagery products from drone-captured still imagery for visualization and analysis in ArcGIS. Data processed by Drone2Map can also be rendered in Esri’s ArcGIS online web service and integrated into ArcGIS for further processing. 


These maps are detailed, defining and textured. The drone will send the data to cloud-based storage accessible to authorized professionals. Stakeholders – architects, engineers, contractors, civil authorities, customers and more – can hold individual or group discussions on results, planning and pricing.

Other benefits to surveying with drones include:

  • Disruption. The drone operator can work from a considerable distance and not worry about natural or artificial barriers to the sight lines.
  • Imagery. Images are high resolution and serve a variety of users. They can be transmitted, shared and printed. Software can turn them into topographical maps, heatmaps and more.
  • Risk. Drones present no safety risk for the operator and eliminates risks to ground and air personnel.
  • Environment. Battery-operated, drones produce no toxic fumes.

Costing

The drone will soon dominate a lot of construction engineering projects because of its ingenuity, practicality, and affordability. Once their versatility shows on the business’ bottom line, drones will be active throughout the industry.

Drones will accelerate processes, facilitate quality inspections, assess problems and picture alternatives. And, they'll do this while reducing the labor burden and enabling a more efficient allocation of personnel.

Alan Perlman of UAV Coach claims, “The possibility to shorten the surveying process through the support of UAV solutions contains the potential to enormously reduce the time and monetary investment – for every project, for every surveying company, and in every country. Surveyors can not only increase their productivity by being able to carry out more projects in the same amount of time, but they can also work with a more qualitative dataset, which makes it possible to conduct better, more thorough planning.”

Case in point, the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, famous for movies like City Slickers, and being the inspiration for many of Georgia O'Keefe's artwork, experienced a flash flood in 2015. Flightline Geographics, provider of premium image content for GIS from both manned and unmanned platforms, and early adopter of UAS was called in to evaluate the conditions. The company conducted a drainage study with a mere 45 minute drone flight covering 640 acres. Within two days they'd taken the data, mapped the terrain, and provided 3D visualization.


Not all drone surveys are equal in accuracy, however. "Sometimes all it takes is the right tool, in the right hands, to make a project run more smoothly," Christian Stallings, R&D Manager at McKim & Creed told me. The leading engineering and surveying firm estimates a 60% cost savings using Esri's Drone2Map over conventional survey techniques. 

One of McKim & Creed’s clients asked required them to provide volume calculations at a185-acre balancing reservoir site that two drone surveys had already been conducted to verify the quantities, but the numbers weren’t adding up. The inconsistent data was delaying progress and becoming costly. 

Able to do drone surveillance on Sundays while the construction teams were not working, McKim & Creed was able to survey 180 acres half a day with drones. Using UAS improved accountability, saved taxpayer money, did not disrupt construction, and produced a high-accuracy, cost-effective record of the entire construction process. "It was the right tool in the right hands," Stallings explained. 

Surveyers aren't soon to become obsolete, however. While the turnaround time for collecting and processing data with manned platforms doesn't necessarily work for time-sensitive projects, it can still be essential for larger projects. Speaking for Georgia Power, Paul Schneider, economic development engineer told me, “If you’re doing a large project, manned can be lower costs than unmanned."

In the end, those Christmas present drones that are more trouble than they're worth are only a small version of the potential freedom offered by commercial drones. Innovative and rapidly evolving, the better drones will benefit civil engineers and surveyors. Their contribution to quality performance and lower costs will benefit their customers, too.

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