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In Land Surveying, Stantec Jumps Ahead of the Tech Curve with Expanded Drone Use

Small aircraft can provide much richer maps and data sets than traditional surveying methods

Hayden Gower, Victor Rasgado and Nick Kariger, from left, use drones as part of their surveying work at Stantec’s Santa Barbara office. Click to view larger
Hayden Gower, Victor Rasgado and Nick Kariger, from left, use drones as part of their surveying work at Stantec’s Santa Barbara office. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

To measure bluff erosion, land surveyors basically have to extend a measuring tape from a safe distance out to the end of a cliff.

Now, as unmanned aircraft systems — commonly called drones — are increasingly incorporated into business operations, bluff erosion can be quickly measured with aerial photographs shot from different angles, providing surveyors, engineers and planners highly detailed 3-D images composed of informational data points.

Getting ahead of the commercial-drone-use curve is Stantec, an Edmonton, Canada-based design and consulting firm with an office in downtown Santa Barbara.

Stantec recently announced an expanded use of drones in its surveying work in a number of American and Canadian cities.

The information from the high-tech field work is provided over the web to engineering clients for land-use planning.

“We’re still spending about the same amount of time in the field, but we’re capturing like a thousand times more information than doing it the traditional way,” Stantec surveyor Victor Rasgado told Noozhawk.

Rasgado was a central figure in his company’s turn toward drones as a surveying tool after seeing how accurate drones’ surveying capabilities can be while teaching at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Not every surveying project benefits from the new method, according to Stantec surveyor Nick Kariger. The company’s cameras, for instance, can’t penetrate heavy tree cover to reveal the land below.

Kariger and Hayden Gower, another surveyor, operate the Santa Barbara office’s two drones, which they fly at a height of 100 to 200 feet depending on the size of the land they’re surveying and the amount of detail they require.

The drones can be operated manually by a simple remote control, but are usually left to automatically follow a pre-planned route.

Stantec is increasingly incorporating drones, such as this one manufactured by Skycatch, to assist in surveying work. Click to view larger
Stantec is increasingly incorporating drones, such as this one manufactured by Skycatch, to assist in surveying work. (Stantec photo)

In the sky, the drone shoots a slew of overlapping photos that are then stitched together into maps using accompanying GPS coordinates.

A drone can cover about 20 acres of land on one battery, Gower said. The system’s accuracy can be as fine as a centimeter.

The resulting data, Rasgado added, have to be R.A.D. — reliable, accurate and defendable. (Their licenses depend on that guarantee, he noted.)

Regulatory bodies such as the Federal Aviation Administration have been hurrying to implement regulations as recreational — and now commercial — drone use has taken off.

Operators must fly the vehicles within their line of sight, avoid airports and complete a special pilot’s certification.

Earlier this year, the FAA released a “No Drone Zone” map for the Santa Barbara Airport that “highly discouraged” the use of drones within two miles of the facility.

Despite their unique capabilities, recreational drone use has come under fire for alleged violations of people’s privacy and interference with both other aircraft and aerial firefighting efforts.

The first step in surveying an area with a drone, Rasgado said, is to research the air space and find out what’s allowed in — and what else is using — the sky.

Despite all the doors drones open in the surveying and land-use sector, he added, the wealth of new information can only spread as fast as the data’s recipients learn about the new method.

Part of Rasgado’s job is familiarizing engineers and planners with the types of data now at their fingertips, and demonstrating how R.A.D. the data is.

“They have to be comfortable using this data set,” he said. “We can give them all this, and they’ll still want the 2-D plans. So there’s also kind of an education that we have to be part of to let them know, ‘We can give you this point-cloud data, and you’ve got everything at your disposal’.”

Drones can really open the door, Rasgado added, to wider and improved use of geographic information systems, or GIS, which analyze, integrate and visualize spatial information, often in multi-layer maps.

“The more information people have, the hope is better (land-use) decisions can be made,” he said.

Equipped with the right instruments, the small, maneuverable vehicles could become integral to police and firefighting services, Kariger added.

The next steps in enhancing Stantec’s aerial surveying capabilities, Gower said, could include equipping its drones with LIDAR and infrared instruments to reveal even more detail of the land.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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