Eyes in the sky: Using drones in engineering

By intouch posted 13 June 2018 20:03


Once considered a toy, drones are fast shaping up to become one of local government’s most essential and valuable tools. But first there are several challenges to overcome.

Drone-Pilot-Operating-UAV-During-Wind-Turbine-Inspection-878674616_839x1258.jpegWhen policy adviser Carrie Hillier was tasked with researching and writing a report on the benefits of drone use to local government, she wasn’t convinced it would lead anywhere. It would likely be a one-off project ending with a paper circulated to councils, and then she’d hear nothing more of it, she thought. But the deeper Hillier looked into the topic, the more she recognised the immense power of the technology.

“This technology is going to save a lot of time, significantly reduce workplace risk and create a lot of efficiencies that lead to major cost-savings for councils,” says Hillier, Manager of Infrastructure Innovations and the RPA Gateway Service for Local Government Infrastructure Services (LGIS).

“It will also enhance the way councils manage their data and what they do with their data, to better inform decisions across a range of different areas.”

Hillier conducted interviews with many councils. Some had experienced great success with drone use. Others had tried and failed, and therefore decided drones weren’t worth the trouble.

Some had not worked with drones at all.

“We found so many different stories,” she says. “We then identified the key things that councils need to have in place for effective drone operations. If they don’t work through the business process, including how they are going to gather, analyse, utilise and store the data, it’s not going to work. It’s important to recognise that there’s more to it than putting the drone in the air.”

When they want to put a drone in the air, councils often employ a certified drone pilot such as Christopher Drummond. A civil engineer from the University of New South Wales specialising in coastal engineering, Drummond regularly uses a fixed-wing UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), as opposed to the traditional quadcopter drone, to map large areas. As the drone flies over a survey area, it takes a series of photos which it combines with highly accurate measurements of altitude and global positioning.

The information is then fed into a photogrammetry software system in order to produce a highly accurate 3D survey of the geographical region. But land mapping and surveying is not the only job drones are doing.

“Drones are being used where it would be unsafe for a person to go,” Drummond says.

“For example, we’re sending drones out to survey rock platforms because the level of risk faced by a person would be unacceptable.”

“Drones are being used to collect large amounts of data more efficiently. In the case of Central Coast Council, where beach erosion monitoring is conducted regularly and consistently, Council is actively seeking for a cost-effective monitoring method. When the council learned that it was a simple one-man operation to map their entire coastline using a drone, they realised that it was a viable option.”

Read more: How drones can save you time and money

Drones are also used for asset condition inspection, construction, coastal and waterway condition monitoring, disaster and emergency management, volumetric assessments for landfill and quarry management, gas monitoring, pest and weed detection, control and monitoring, surveillance of unlawful activity and more.

Hillier reports in the May 2016 paper entitled Remotely Piloted Aircraft – the Essential Tool to Enhance Local Government Service Capabilities, an impressive list of benefits has been demonstrated through the use of drones.

These include:
• Significant reduction in workplace hazards
• Increased efficiency by reducing man hours involved in routine surveillance and mapping
• Increased accuracy and consistency in data capture
• Increased accessibility to assets and unique views/perspectives
• Increased productivity and value for money by the efficient allocation and targeting of resources
• Increased quality, quantity and speed in which information is available to decision makers

If drones are of such great use, why isn’t everybody using them? Actually, there are several reasons, Hillier says.

Steps to drone success 

Hillier heads up the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) Gateway, an LGIS program aimed at sorting out the technology capabilities required by local councils in Australia before drones can be utilised to full effect. One important message for councils, she says, is that drones are not the answer to everything. They are simply a tool to be added to a council toolkit. Having said that, it has already been proven that drones do an exceptional job in areas such as volumetric assessment, construction surveys, asset inspections and conservation.

“The use of drones for inspecting coastal and waterway assets and stability is the latest area that is really taking off with councils,” Hillier says.

“Councils are getting access to a new perspective of their assets and a level of data accuracy that can enhance planning and structural soundness of coastal assets like seawalls, so that's a huge benefit to help mitigate erosion and property damage from storms.”

The areas councils must consider prior to putting drones to work are:
• Pilot – do you have a trained and highly skilled UAV pilot who understands what the data will be used for?
• Airspace integration – what do you need to know in terms of CASA regulations, as well as safety, liability and privacy laws, before drones can be safely and legally used in specific areas?
• Equipment for purpose – does the technology exist to do the job that you wish to do with drones?
• Data infrastructure – are your internal systems ready to effectively and efficiently upload, analyse and work with the data that drones will provide?
• Community support – have you communicated the positive uses of drones to the public, some of whom may consider they are being used to ‘spy’?

A well-managed drone program is a powerful tool for local councils, increasing efficiency, productivity and safety, and providing strong data to support decisions. There is a clear business case for the use of such technology by councils, as long as councils have taken the right steps in implementing the technology.

What's blocking drone progress?

First of all, Hillier says, for some councils it is the bad experiences they have had with suppliers or their own procurement that is preventing them from further investing in the technology. A secondary blocker is a lack of internal appetite for a drone program, or for managing the perceived risks associated with such a program. 
“Rightly so,” she says. “A number of councils are cautious about jumping into using drones, so with the LGIS RPA Gateway Service we’re allowing them to dip their toes in without the risk associated with full investment.”

“Finally the regulatory environment is changing, which can make councils nervous about investing and incorporating drones into their operations. Nobody likes constantly changing regulations in any industry, but we need to keep up with this innovative technology and the way industry wants to utilise it.”

This story was first published in the December 2016 edition of inspire magazine. Read the original and more here.    

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