Unmanned Aerial System: Taking Surveying to a Higher Level

UAS: Taking Surveying to a Higher Level

Technological advances continually bring new products onto the market that offer improved and more efficient methods of completing everyday engineering and surveying tasks.  A recent example of new technology involving engineering and surveying services is that of drone usage.  Over the past few years drone technology has spread downward from strictly military use to the public sector.  While some of the rapid increase in drone ownership is purely for recreational enjoyment, the engineering community has also experienced an increase in drone use for the gathering of topographical survey data.  Often the question of whether to adopt a new technology is more of a “when” decision than an “if” decision.  For those of us old enough to remember when hand-held calculators replaced the sliderule, computers largely replaced hand-held calculators, and CADD software/plotting made drafting tables obsolete, these “cutting edge” changes each offered a promised increase in efficiency but required a business decision of when to adopt the technology.

ECSI faced such a decision approximately one year ago with consideration of buying a survey capable drone while the technology was still relatively new, or to wait for further improvements in the technology coupled with probable falling prices.  Uncertainty of how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was going to regulate the private and commercial use of drones only added further complexity to the decision making process.  Ultimately, ECSI decided to proceed with the purchase of a fixed-wing eBee™ drone and associated software to enhance our surveying capabilities.

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Having been recently granted approval from the FAA to operate this Unmanned Aerial System (UAS or “Drone”) in a commercial capacity, ECSI has put it to good use providing aerial photogrammetric services for clients in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.  Since our purchase of this technology, we have had ample opportunity to assess the accuracy and precision of measurements made with the Drone compared to more conventional surveying methods of total stations and GPS.  ECSI, and its clients, have been very pleased with the surveying performance of this system, as well as with the quality, high-definition composite photographs that are produced.  It has proven to be an effective way to perform annual updates of progress maps necessary to comply with regulatory requirements of mineral producers, to calculate stockpile volumes, assist in the calculation of overburden volumes to be excavated or which have already been excavated, and to produce as-built drawings of larger earthen structures for certification, such as coal processing waste disposal embankments, spoil disposal structures and roads.

Use of this aerial platform for certain surveying and mapping projects affords our clients not only improved economics, but it takes our personnel out of harm’s way when working around active operations and highwalls or steep rugged terrain.  Whereas a conventional, or even GPS, survey of a tract of land may require one or more days of work for a two or three person crew, the same tract of land may be covered by UAS in a single twenty or thirty minute flight.  Furthermore, the aerial survey would not “miss” hard to reach areas, and many more observation points would be recorded.  There are limits, however, to the effectiveness of aerial surveys, including inclement weather, dense vegetation or proximity to “no-fly zones” (airports, residential communities, etc), and each project must be investigated to determine the best course of action.

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With the growing availability and affordability of this technology, the surveying field has been flooded with companies trying to compete with this service. Clients should be wary of new firms popping up offering similar services at a cut-rate deal. Don’t be misled, having the funds to purchase this equipment and obtaining a waiver to legally fly it does not necessarily qualify a company to produce survey documents or engineering measurements without the appropriate licensure. Many companies performing surveying and engineering services without the appropriate licenses are being reported to their respective boards and legal action will likely follow.

Don’t get caught needing to have a survey redone because government agencies reject an uncertified document. Stick with the names you know and have been around for the long haul.

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