With approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – also known as drone – applications in the environmental and engineering industries have expanded considerably over the last few years. Once used primarily to capture imagery, UAS technology advancements allow for more capabilities and have shifted the way we approach projects. Further, regulators are increasingly comfortable with the technology, offering their stamp of approval on UAS applications.
The latest UAS/drone capabilities
When a technology advances so quickly, it can be easy to miss recent developments. Here is a quick summary of recent advancements in UAS capabilities you may have missed:
- LiDAR: While LiDAR has been the standard in manned aircraft mapping for years, it has now been scaled to UAS-sized aircraft. Currently, UAS use red, green, and blue (RGB) imagery to map a site, and then algorithms stitch the images together. This is called photogrammetry and UAS operators, like Trihydro, follow the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) standards to process the data. With LiDAR equipped UAS, images consisting of millions of data points are captured via a laser, leading to highly detailed datasets. As mentioned, LiDAR as a technology has been used for decades and has traditionally been fitted to a manned aircraft, which can be cost-prohibitive. With the latest advancements, you can receive the same benefits for a fraction of the cost. LiDAR has several advantages over RGB as it can “see” things standard equipment cannot. In highly vegetated areas, LiDAR can penetrate through to the ground, offering a valuable tool in areas that cannot easily be mapped by traditional methods.
- Thermal Imaging: With thermal imaging, UAS can detect heat and map out variations in infrared energy. Thermal cameras can capture objects that cannot otherwise be seen, such as in instances where fog, smoke, vegetation, or a lack of light are involved.
- Gas Sampling: UAS can be used to monitor for gas leaks by taking air samples, which may be especially beneficial in hazardous environments as it eliminates human health and safety risks. A wide variety of sensors can be attached to UAS to monitor and capture gas emissions and parameters such as temperature, humidity, pressure, the number of particles, or even volatile organic compounds (VOCs) distribution.
- Liquids Sampling: UAS applications now include the recovery of fluid samples. In many cases, open tanks, pits/ponds, streams, and lakes can be sampled safely with a UAS equipped with a reel device. This type of operation allows for remote sampling of potentially hazardous areas. The benefits of using UAS for remote fluid sampling are particularly pronounced if using a boat is prohibitive, unsafe, or expensive.
- Magnetometer: While using magnetometers in the aviation field is nothing new (early magnetic compasses were used traditionally to orient the aircraft in flight), modern magnetometers measure the Earth’s magnetic waves and are used for a wide variety of tasks. In recent UAS applications, a magnetometer can be paired with the nimbleness of a multi-rotor UAS flying at low altitude to identify asset locations. This can be especially helpful in scenarios where asset records do not match actual locations or in mapping assets located in hazardous areas.
Creative UAS applications in challenging times
With travel restrictions, budget cutbacks, and increased project precautions in the pandemic-era, UAS applications can offer creative project solutions to help increase efficiencies. Here are a couple of ways UAS can streamline efforts during challenging times:
- Virtual Site/Facility Inspections: If you have remote team members or an upcoming regulatory inspection, consider whether you can live stream the inspection with UAS. A live stream presentation could allow multiple parties to review or inspect a facility or site without exposing team members to potential contagions. A UAS solution could also allow an annual inspection to occur that might otherwise be tabled due to travel restrictions. High-resolution imagery can be used for various inspections including documenting changed conditions, assessing deteriorated conditions, or capturing changes in vegetation. These changed conditions can be compared over a series of multiple visits. Fly-through presentations can also be recorded and presented to audiences in a variety of ways.
- Document Project Success: Flying both before and after a project allows you to document results in a highly visual manner. Using UAS at the beginning of a project ensures initial site conditions are well-documented, provides an accurate base map, and provides a comparison benchmark for post-project UAS imagery. With side-by-side aerial shots and footage, project results become evident and more readily understood by wide audiences. Further, by capturing pre-construction imagery, there are records readily available to address issues that may arise, such as landowner claims regarding disturbances outside the project area.
A quick note on selecting the right equipment
A common UAS choice is between fixed-wing or multi-rotor. One important consideration is the size of the project. If you need to cover a large area with standard high-resolution data, a fixed-wing UAS will work well. In other cases, where you need specialized, ultrahigh-resolution data, a multi-rotor UAS will provide centimeter-level results.
Another important factor when selecting the right tool for the job involves assessing risk or accessibility. A multi-rotor device can go where a fixed-wing cannot. In many instances, sending a multi-rotor UAS into a high-risk area is preferable over sending a human into a potentially dangerous situation. For example, a multi-rotor UAS can fly through a mineshaft or navigate large sewer/storm pipes in search of obstructions and relay this information with real-time video.
Instant UAS approvals are here
In the past, some projects had to forego using UAS because the air space authorization process could take up to 90 days. This required either advanced planning or a flexible schedule. Now, with LAANC, an air space authorization system, you can receive instant authorization to fly UAS in Class B, C, or D airspace. LAANC is continuing to roll out nationwide and will allow more projects to more easily take advantage of UAS solutions.
Interested in learning more?
Trihydro has helped its clients leverage UAS technology since 2016. Learn more about our UAS capabilities
on our website or connect with us directly to discuss potential UAS applications for your project.
Paul Klemperer, PLS, CFedS
Senior Surveyor/Team Leader