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Flying high: Drone technology is providing better community resiliency and recovery

March 23, 2020

From 3-D models to thermal infrared scans, the information drones provide is transforming community development and environmental services

Whether we’re ready for the technology or not, tiny robots with wings are collecting data in the sky above us—and they are fundamentally changing the way we understand the world. I’m not talking about retail giants like Amazon using drones to deliver packages. My team at Stantec is using drone technology to improve the quality of life in the communities where we live, work, and play.

I’m a GIS analyst. I make maps to help scientists, planners, engineers, and designers alike clearly see boundaries and features that might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye.

Drones are changing the way I work by improving the ways a project site can be visualized, while still maintaining high positional accuracies. For example, using a drone, we can find a feature shown on a map in the same place in the real world.

We’re putting drone technology to use after natural disasters, to help isolated communities improve infrastructure, and to better aid cleanup after environmental contamination—or stop it earlier. Drones are small but powerful.

One of the benefits of drone technology is that it is easily portable. 

Supporting transportation access—and resiliency efforts—efficiently

One of the benefits of drone technology is that it is easily portable. When our team was called to help with post lava flow assessments on the big island of Hawaii following the Kilauea eruption in 2018, we could load up our gear at the Honolulu interisland terminals and be ready to go at Hilo within an hour.

Drones are changing the way I work by improving how a project site can be visualized, while still maintaining high positional accuracies.

This was an urgent project that required a rapid turnaround. Lava tore through several of Hawaii Island’s easternmost communities, destroying all roadways and properties in its path.

Our goal was to help the county get the roads reopened so people could return to their homes. Using just traditional survey methods, it would have taken months to stake out points and features across the 7,000 acres of solidified lava.

Instead, we combined our traditional survey techniques with drone technology to map out and generate a three-dimensional surface model of the buried roads in just days.

Drone technology enabled us to quickly collect data needed to generate our client’s desired products with high-resolution detail and accuracy. Thanks to this technology, we can work more efficiently, safely, and generate better products than surveying the “old-fashioned” way.

Improving infrastructure in remote communities

Drone technology is applicable to so many places and disciplines, like remote communities that need infrastructure improvements.

The gravel airport runways of the remote Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages in Alaska heave and shift between the harsh winters and milder summers. Yet, the need to safely transport community members in and out of the villages by bush plane is standard practice. If a runway isn’t safe for operation, that village is essentially cut off from the rest of the state and world. No travel out and no supplies coming in.

In the summer of 2019, my team was asked to produce high-resolution base maps and 3-D surface models of three village runways in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a roadless area about 400 miles west of Anchorage. These would help airport designers plan needed improvements.

The imagery that the drone provided allowed us to view cracks, undulations in the runway, and even tire tracks from four-wheelers and plane wheels. Thanks to the drone, we could clearly identify those features without having to survey each site the traditional way.

Combining drone technology and traditional survey methods, however, enabled us to not only review the high-resolution imagery but also to create a 3-D shaded relief to visualize the topography of the runway.

Further, a three-dimensional point cloud, a literal 3-D representation of the project site, could be generated and used to safely extract the height of wind cones, light beacons, and power lines. How cool is that?

Had we used only traditional methods, all this work would have taken one week at each site. By using drones, we gathered all the information we needed for three sites in just under a week and a half. The rapid turnaround of products was invaluable for our transportation and airport design team in Anchorage, not to mention to the communities that needed runway repairs.

Imagery from the drone can be used to produce digital surface models (right) to better visualize the surface of the project site. This product is useful to identify uneven surfaces that might not be as obvious from a single image alone (left).

Advanced response—beyond the human eye

Nearly anyone can take pictures with a drone and make cool models. I’m excited about taking the technology a step further and using thermal infrared sensors to address environmental hazards and other needs.

Thermal infrared sensors can help us monitor and contain oil spills by detecting oil based on characteristics invisible to the human eye—heat. While oil sheening may blend in with the shiny ocean surface, a thermal sensor can detect even a single degree of temperature difference between oil and water. This is useful because oil at the ocean surface is typically slightly warmer and can be detected from the thermal sensor.

We can even use this technology as a preventative resource—to monitor and detect an oil leak and address it more quickly. This same principle can be applied to detecting oil leaks on pipelines, particularly in cold, rural locations.

The possibilities don’t stop there. We can use drones to inspect utilities with super-zoom cameras, keeping utility inspectors safe on the ground before clipping in and climbing up. We can help farmers, big and small, find solutions to crop issues by using multispectral sensors that can identify irrigation deficiencies, or crops showing symptoms of disease before the crop is lost.

Drones are helping us to improve lives faster, more safely, and with more precision and accuracy.

It’s a new and ever-evolving technology and we’re excited to see where we can take it next.

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