Unmanned Aerial System: 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.

Why Land Surveying is Essential

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We’ve all seen them – someone standing on the side of the road as you drive by with a tripod and a transit – but what are they actually doing? These folks are part of a network of surveyors and engineers who provide site surveys to establish boundaries, determine distance and location and create maps.  The data from these surveys is used across a variety of industries, from mining to roadways and residential design to construction.

To spread the word about the surveying profession and help you determine whether you require the assistance of a surveyor, we asked some of ECSI’s own surveying team to share the details with you.

What is the core function of a surveyor?

To accurately determine three-dimensional points in space as well as the distances and angles between them.

Why would businesses contract surveyors to assist with their projects?

To prepare topographic maps, property and permit boundaries, building locations and dimensions.

What is the biggest challenge a surveyor faces in the field?

Staying on the cutting edge of ever-evolving technology.  It is imperative that we generate the most accurate surveys in the shortest amount of time for the best price.  To do so requires constant adaptation.

What do you want others to know about the surveying profession?

A good survey is the building block of any project.  All engineering calculations performed will only be as accurate as the source data acquired.  Surveying information becomes outdated as land is developed and properties change; thus, the age of the survey is as relevant to accuracy as the equipment and performance of the surveyor. Therefore, it is imperative to have a recent, well-performed survey as the backbone of project development.

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There you have it! Comment below to let us know what questions you have and how we can help.

The Key to Freeing Local Communities from Regulatory Oversight

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We’ve all heard the stories. Farmers fined tens of thousands of dollars for digging a pond for their cattle without a permit, citizens being issued compliance orders for building their home in jurisdictional wetlands. You don’t have to look far to find tensions between local communities and state or federal regulatory agencies. Most of the time, these communities or individuals find themselves stunned and helpless upon receipt of a compliance order. In many cases, they will spend tens of thousands of dollars in litigation trying to fight imposed regulations.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to battling out compliance issues in court. Written within the regulations are limits to this jurisdictional oversight. Instead of months of litigation debating the interpretation of the law, consider making an argument based on concrete scientific evidence.

ECSI has become a key player on this front. We were recently involved in a project where a homeowners association received a letter of deficiency after an inspection of the dam embanking their neighborhood pond. The remediation the inspector cited was not feasible, and the removal of the dam would be a costly forfeiture. The homeowners association sought our services in hopes of finding an economical alternative.

Being a relatively small reservoir and embankment, the dam only met one of the requirements of a moderate hazard classification requiring regulatory oversight. Both the height and the hydraulic capacity were below the minimum limit. The only basis for jurisdiction was the potential downstream consequences. Since the potential downstream effects were not established, the dam remained under regulatory authority. Only an engineering analysis certified by a professional engineer would release the homeowners association from complying.

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Our analysis began with taking surveyed information of the dam, reservoir and downstream profile and inputting that into HEC-RAS. Developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, this River Analysis System has breach analysis functions that generate velocities, flows and water surface elevation. Downstream, there were crossings with culverts of many different shapes and sizes. HEC-RAS had options for each feature. Using Froehlich empirical equations, we were able to simulate the breach dimensions and timing.

Based on our analysis, we provided the inspector with proof that the damages of a catastrophic failure of the dam would be minimal. Shortly after the report was submitted, the inspector issued a letter to the homeowners association that the dam would be removed from regulatory oversight. Crisis averted.

This community can now enjoy their backyard pond and stream in peace with their financial burden relieved. Instead of finding yourself fighting a compliance order and staring down months of costly litigation, have a consulting firm take a look at the underlying scientific evidence.  It could save you thousands.

Seth Mittle