Olsson Associates

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Unmanned Aerial Systems save time and money, improve quality for survey services

Monday, June 23, 2014

Jonathan Harris, Environmental Assessment

On a typical day of surveying, a two-member Olsson crew travels to a job site with cumbersome survey equipment and spends hours moving the equipment to gather data. If a large site needs up-to-the-minute aerial mapping to accompany the survey, perhaps a small plane is contracted to take photos from 500 feet or more above ground level.

Imagine that the same tasks could be completed with one surveyor and one Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operator at a fraction of the time and cost. Olsson is on the forefront of improving its survey services with the use of UAS technology. Olsson will begin using the equipment in the Rocky Mountain region and plans to make it a corporate-wide program within the next two years. Once fully implemented, the technology will be instrumental in revolutionizing how surveys are conducted.

In general, the operator pilots the UAS with a camera attachment and takes ultra-high-resolution images of a large area in a short period of time. Meanwhile, a surveyor collects ground control points to orient the data gathered in the air to their absolute position on the earth. This collaboration of augmenting traditional survey techniques with UAS can save time and money while improving data quality.

The above scenario is one of the many ways that unmanned aerial vehicles will change the way engineers and scientists serve their clients. Other examples of UAS technology applications include:

Photogrammetry: Cameras attached to UAS vehicles provide ultra-high-resolution images that can be used to augment ground surveys and provide data to integrate into GIS and CAD systems. While manned aircraft cannot typically fly below 500 feet, UAS can cover a large area yet fly lower to the ground to acquire more detailed images. From these images, complex Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) and topographical lines can be created with millimeter accuracy.

Infrared (IR) and Infrared Thermography (IRT): UAS vehicles can be fitted with IR or IRT cameras for a variety of purposes, such as detecting leaks at oil and gas facilities, locating dead cells in solar panels, and locating hot spots in power line infrastructures.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI): UAS technology can be used to assess vegetation for a variety of industries, including monitoring revegetation levels along pipeline right-of-ways and detecting over-watering and under-watering in agricultural areas.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR): Laser technology can be added to UAS to provide high-resolution mapping that can be performed at night or through dense vegetation. Data gathered is used to generate as-built CAD drawings.

Advantages of the UAS include the following:

  • Is low cost when compared to traditional aerial photography
  • Able to get into small spaces
  • Provides client a new and unique perspective
  • Allows a time savings of 50 to 90 percent over traditional survey

For all of these applications and more, UAS are able to improve data quality and collect the data more quickly and with less staff. The cost of using a UAS is much less expensive, is safer, and is more versatile than using standard, manned aircraft.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) challenged the use of UAS in commercial operations, but recent National Transportation Safety Board court decisions overruling the FAA’s UAS policies have compelled the FAA to fast track the development of rules for UAS use. The proposed FAA rules are expected winter 2014 for small craft and late 2015 for all UAS. The proposed rules will likely include requirements for training, testing, and licensing UAS operators.

This is an exciting time regarding the use of UAS. Olsson has the staff and technology to offer services that fit the emerging and growing legal uses of UAS. For more information, please call contact Jonathan Harris at 970.263.7800 or jharris@olssonassociates.com.

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