Article: Eyes in the Sky: Drone Info Is Shaping the Future

From inspecting critical infrastructure to fighting forest fires and assisting in search-and-rescue operations, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, are revolutionizing the way organizations do business. Their intricate technology promises to play a major role in how smart cities operate in a safe and efficient manner. 

Pairing an increased demand for connectivity with the technological benefits that come with using a drone, it’s no wonder that their sales have more than tripled during the last year, according to a report released by the NPD Group. More specifically, Navigant Research predicted annual sales for drones and robotics technologies — just within the transmission and distribution industry — to reach $4.1 billion by 2024, up from $131.7 million in 2015.

Along with the ability to capture high-resolution images and sweeping video, drones use sensors to target specific parts of the light spectrum to collect valuable data. And that data is helping companies make important decisions by uniquely identifying possible areas of concern, such as when inspecting remote parts of a transmission structure, wind turbine or solar panel for maintenance and operational functionality. 

Drones Revolutionize How Projects Are Designed and Built 

Engineers across the country are using data pulled from custom flight missions — using fixed-wing aircraft for large job sites and hovering quadcopters for smaller spaces — to provide cost-effective solutions for their clients spanning multiple industries.

Certain types of post-processing software allow companies to invest in flight and GPS data to create specific data sets, including aerial imagery, 3-D models, 3-D point clouds, digital surface and terrain models, near-infrared imagery and thermal imagery, which is considered a prevalent feature.

Thermal imagery provides the ability to identify thermal footprints that can help solve certain challenges or enhance certain situations. For example, when examining the roof of a building, an owner can utilize thermal image technology to see the varying roof temperatures, which helps identify a potential leak or HVAC issues. With aerial imagery, thousands of images can be stitched together into one photograph that shows a project’s surface location. Going a step further, the team interpolates the elevation of each pixel to generate a 3-D model, allowing the client to walk through a corridor or inspect a gas pipe virtually to detect areas of improvement.

“Clients are using this type of walk-through to replace constructability reviews, and many have made it standard procedure for how they do business,” says Steve Santovasi, geospatial manager at Burns & McDonnell.

Zooming in on Smart Cities

As drones revolutionize design-build projects, their cutting-edge technology is proving to be a game-changer for future cities already using them — and the data they’ve collected — to inform decisions on smart infrastructure, safety and security.

In the coming years, UASs are expected to use multiple platforms while operating simultaneously to run missions. The City of Philadelphia is already considering using drones to aid in its public safety and improve government services, such as emergency crews responding to storms, fires and other emergencies. And, according to The Charlotte Observer, Duke Energy was granted permission by the Federal Aviation Administration to start testing drone technology at the Marshall Steam Station in Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, to research how drones can help in surveying power lines and solar facilities, among other entities.

But, like everything else, there’s always room for improvement. The Smart Cities Council informed the public about a solar-powered fleet of high-altitude drones that’s in the works. Companies like AT&T and Facebook currently are testing sites and flights, with plans to use drones to restore communications following natural disasters, as well as to simply provide cost-effective internet coverage to millions of people who don’t have access today.

“Soon, drones will be programmed for completely autonomous missions, allowing them to repeatedly deploy themselves and redock for charging after completion,” Santovasi says. “The drones will use advanced detection and avoidance systems, as well as intelligent recognition systems, to safely carry out their tasks.”

What's next in UASs? Discover how drone technology is shaping the future in the white paper.

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