Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as drones, were originally designed to carry out military missions that were deemed too dangerous for humans or for which manned aircraft were impractical. What we would recognize today as drones were jointly developed by Israel and the US during the 1980s and deployed against Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, and have since become a staple of modern warfare and antiterrorism activities. However, due to ongoing improvements in technology and miniaturization and decreasing costs, the use of drones has since expanded far beyond the military sphere to many other applications, including science, recreation, aerial photography, product delivery, agriculture, law enforcement, surveillance, and even protecting elephants from poachers.
Of particular interest is the applicability of drone technology to engineering and surveying. HAKS recognizes this potential; we have a small UAV and two licensed pilots ready to meet future needs and serve our clients. For example, drones are used as aerial surveying platforms to create topographical maps and 3-D point clouds through the use of photogrammetry. Some drones are even being equipped with LiDAR. The map quality is not survey grade, but has plenty of applications. The prospects for drone-powered engineering applications are so strong that PwC recently projected in its white paper Clarity from Above that the market could be worth more than $45.2 billion for global infrastructure projects.
UAVs can’t fly just anywhere. FAA Part 107 regulations state that UAVs must be operated at least five miles from any airport and cannot fly over the public. Anyone flying a UAV for commercial purposes must be a certified drone pilot with FAA Part 107 registration. In the congested Northeast, this leaves little space for operating drones. Nevertheless, like HAKS, other organizations are exploring the possibilities afforded by UAVs.
US News and World Report describes how the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is currently testing the use of drones to inspect bridges, a perspicuous decision for a state with more than 20,000 bridges requiring inspection. In addition to obviating the need for the access and safety equipment required for human inspectors, this would also be considerably cheaper; a drone costs MnDOT $40,000 compared to $675,000 for the trucks ordinarily used. Drone inspections can also be conducted without lane closures and traffic delays. Furthermore, the drones will not only allow inspectors to see the bridges, but to detect temperature changes in concrete as well. MnDOT plans to complete final testing this spring and potentially deploy drones for bridge inspections as soon as 2018.
According to Builder, a Florida general contractor is testing the use of drones to take daily or hourly aerial surveys of construction sites to provide constantly updated as-built conditions information. Combining this information with 3-D modeling applications to create virtual renderings of as-built conditions will allow contractors and workers to make allowances for hazardous conditions and other contingencies before physically setting foot on a site. The firm plans to deploy an even more ambitious virtual reality application in which designers and contractors will be able to view 3-D models of potential designs, fixtures, and finishes; review real-time situations; and make changes before construction begins.
Mashable reports that Singapore’s Land Transportation Authority (LTA) will soon be conducting trials for utilizing drone technology to inspect its extensive underground subway tunnel network. Currently, these tunnels are inspected by teams of engineers; by using drones to conduct 360-degree mapping of tunnels and identify and pinpoint the location of damage or defects such as cracks or water leakage, the LTA hopes to better utilize the engineers’ abilities by tasking them with analysis of the data obtained by drones and making recommendations for remediation. Drones are being tested at 10 worksites on the Thomson-East Coast line, where they are used to monitor work progress through photos and videos.
According to the LTA: “These new trials will help to further current research developments and validate [drone and UAV] technologies under demanding operational conditions.” Assuming that each of the aforementioned applications similarly validate drone technology, UAVs are the way of the future.