Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), often referred to as drones, have been making inroads into traditional surveying applications for the past decade. Much of this advancement has occurred outside the United States due to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) cautious integration of unmanned aircraft into national commercial airspace. These regulations have started to soften, however, with Section 333 exemptions for commercial use being granted to nearly 3,500 applicants since they became available in March 2015.
With an increasing number of engineering companies among those exempt to fly UAS, their application to infrastructure projects is set to explode. The exemption provides the ability to operate commercially, but aircraft registration and a certified pilot are still among the requirements for compliance.
Proliferation of this technology will occur rapidly given the many unique attributes and benefits of applying these new “eyes from the sky.” Among these attributes and benefits are:
UAS are ideal for surveying and mapping with high-resolution engineering-grade accuracy given their ability to get close to a subject.
Automated workflows create orthophotos as well as 3D models that can be used to quickly calculate quantities for materials such as aggregate stockpiles or cut and fill.
Automation of flight planning and execution means little training is required to plan a mission and receive useful data that can be easily imported into mapping and modeling software.
The low cost, combined with the flexibility to fly an aircraft whenever needed, means users can fully exploit the aerial perspective.
Monitoring of infrastructure projects will improve given the ease of data capture, adding efficiency to project management.
The high volume of data collected can be analyzed to understand site changes as well as feed planning and design with realistic and real-time understanding of a site.
A forward-thinking company recently put UAS technology to good use for a land-development project in Arizona.
Just outside the town of Concho, Ariz., lies a golf course that opened in the 1970s primarily as a diversion for the workers and managers of a power-plant project that took 15 years to build. What started as a nine-hole course was expanded to an 18-hole course in the 1980s, along with more than 300 building lots. The developer invested millions of dollars in sewer, water, and power to all these lots, but the retirement and leisure community never took off.
The property now has been purchased by local financier Michael Meixler, who has different plans to develop the area that comes with valuable water resources and rights that are vital in this arid landscape.
“The 185-acre property has an underground pipeline and sprinklers, and a clubhouse with a commercial kitchen,” says Meixler. “I plan to redevelop the area with 15- to 20-acre irrigated farms and turn the clubhouse into a co-op, where small farmers can turn their produce into a product they can sell. If you grow tomatoes, you can turn that into spaghetti sauce and greatly improve your profit.”
The hope is to attract those who may wish to transition into semi-retirement, with small orchards, vineyards, Christmas tree or vegetable farms that provide an income and occupation. In addition to a cooperative food-processing facility, Meixler also envisions turning the golf course maintenance facility into a tool library, where farmers can borrow a tractor or implement as needed and cut down their investment costs.
Beginning with a baseline
Meixler hired Sperry, Iowa-based AeroView Services to survey the land using Trimble’s UX5 fixed-wing aircraft as well as help plan the farms’ lots and grading designs.
“With the Trimble UX5, we can get out and survey the whole site, and provide an updated digital elevation and CAD file with contours that can be fed into Trimble GPS machine-control equipment,” says Zach Pieper, co-founder of AeroView Services in charge of operations and the legal side of the business.
AeroView Services operates under an FAA exemption and is the first commercial Trimble UX5 service provider in the United States. The company’s principals have experience working with engineering companies in surveying as well as programming GPS machine-control equipment, and UAS technology helped them expand offerings and speed workflows.
“The accuracy of the imagery adds efficiency, as we can map and plan it right the first time, feeding the contours into graders so we don’t have to continually survey,” adds Ryan Murguia, AeroView Services’ co-founder in charge of data processing. “We’re helping plan walking paths, pond designs, roads, drainage, irrigation and more. For the vineyards, we’re going to design and stake where each grape should be planted.”
AeroView Services uses Trimble’s UX5 along with the Trimble Business Center to process the topographic information.
The site has a natural spring that will be augmented by ponds designed to store and reuse water. Among the planned land modifications are layouts designed to conserve water, including small swales on the downside of slopes to capture water and allow it to soak in slowly.
“The drone provides full-color aerial imagery and elevation models that are very detailed,” notes Meixler. “With the 3D data, we can divide and layout the lots, and begin marketing the property.”
The golf course is about 28 miles from the Petrified Forest, which gets approximately 800,000 visitors per year. The hope is to draw those visitors with a farm-to-fork experience with locally produced meat, produce and wine.
“I think it’s a wonderful redevelopment of an asset,” adds Meixler. “There are a lot of vacant golf courses around the country, and I think all subdivisions of the future should have small food-production and processing jobs integrated within the development. I think we have the opportunity to prove a pretty cool concept.”
Tapping into experience
The use of UAS and other automated data-collection tools for infrastructure surveying, mapping, monitoring and inspection certainly is set to increase, with ease and flexibility of use as the prime drivers. However, it’s the data and its usefulness that make this approach a more-informative input than traditional surveys.
The aforementioned use-case relied on traditional imagery sensors as the output. With images, users can readily derive a 2D image as well as a 3D model, but adding different sensors could add considerably more information. For example, manufacturers of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) hardware are making ever-smaller sensors for UAS platforms to deliver high-accuracy 3D models. Multispectral or hyperspectral sensors reveal material properties, detailing species types and mineral properties above and below ground.
With such utility of UAS for infrastructure, there will be many more use cases in the years to come. And when considering UAS applications, think of them as a sensor platform rather than just an imaging platform. There are many more possible applications and insights when the “eye in the sky” is given superpowers that make it capable of sensing and capturing far more than we can see.
As previously published on Informed Infrastructure, written by Matt Ball, V1 Media: https://informedinfrastructure.com/21308/aerial-infrastructure-insight/.
About the author
Matt Ball is founder and editorial director of V1 Media, publisher of Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping and the video news site GeoSpatial Stream.
About Trimble Geospatial
Trimble's Geospatial Division provides solutions that facilitate high-quality, productive workflows and information exchange, driving value for a global and diverse customer base of surveyors, engineering and GIS service companies, governments, utilities and transportation authorities. Trimble's innovative technologies include integrated sensors, field applications, real-time communications and office software for processing, modeling and data analytics. Using Trimble solutions, organizations can capture the most accurate spatial data and transform it into intelligence to deliver increased productivity and improved decision-making. Whether enabling more efficient use of natural resources or enhancing the performance and lifecycle of civil infrastructure, timely and reliable geospatial information is at the core of Trimble's solutions to transform the way work is done.
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