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Drone Technology

Perhaps the future of gathering information about projects is in the air. SSR is testing that theory.

Drones came into the public consciousness a few years ago, mostly as novelty holiday gifts. The new age alternative to remote-controlled airplanes, drones offered something additional — they could hover and they included ample space to mount a camera. That was the important part, and recently, the AEC industry has taken notice. SSR saw the potential, purchased a drone, registered it (a federal requirement for all drones used commercially), and has a licensed pilot on staff, with another colleague preparing for licensing.

Though they can take nice photos, SSR sees the primary benefit of using the drone for projects as the collection of data. Drones can be used for visual inspections, testing on high mast lighting, stormwater outfall, and pavement conditions inspections. It can also be used to create a topographic surface from photogrammetry, which is the use of photographs taken along a path, knowing the elevation, longitude, and latitude (which the drone does) to create a survey surface. The photographs are stitched together, providing a quick survey of the area within a certain accuracy margin.

In a similar process to creating a topographic surface, drones can also be used to capture buildings and other infrastructure into a 3-D model. The camera is adjusted to an oblique angle and captures multiple photos on all sides of a building. These 3-D models can be imported into CADD or GIS software for analysis, including volumetric measurements, change detection, lines of sight, and obstructions.

The next level would be adding a thermal lens to add roof inspections to the list of capabilities. In all of these uses, drones can gather important project information much more quickly and easily than most firms do now. Though lower-cost drones cannot currently replace the accuracy of better field instruments, SSR is working to analyze the benefits and quality of the information we gather with our drone to better understand the threshold of quality, marking the point at which upgrading the machine to one that would provide higher resolution photos and more accurate readings would be advantageous.

Though SSR is still in the process of gathering our initial testing data, we are currently capable of rolling out the drone service to existing projects with the caveat that there can be a slight deviation of measurements of about four to six inches. Until our research and analysis minimizes that deviation, the most significant benefit to clients is the efficiency the drone can bring to the processes within a project. SSR’s Memphis infrastructure team has been including the service with some existing projects, and clients seem impressed. Once the logistics are worked out, the drone could very well be a differentiator that wins a project.