Unmanned Aerial Systems: Capturing Critical Data With Flying Technology

Flying technology offers virtually every industry far-reaching advantages with the ability to quickly capture much-needed critical data and aerial imagery. Unmanned aerial systems are evolving the approach to everything from storm resiliency to manufacturing to navigating challenging geographic regions.

Some people treat capturing picturesque aerial shots as a hobby, while others consider it a method to quickly deliver everyday goods in the future, either way, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are rapidly changing the airspace. The reemergence of such flying technology has sparked conversations around the benefits of capturing data aerially while also acknowledging the safety concerns that arise from having such devices in the sky.

UAS often are used in observational planning and the gathering of strategic data for both military and commercial applications. These flying devices can be autonomously controlled using global positioning system (GPS) capabilities and are often equipped with data-capturing cameras or other sensing technologies to understand positioning and recognize objects in a path.

A UAS can capture data for a wide variety of uses. This type of data capture is beneficial for nearly every industry, from oil and gas to construction to environmental. For commercial use, aerial data can be gathered to plan out industrial endeavors such as scoping out the footprint and evaluate the surrounding area of a large manufacturing building or potential facility sites to meet a client’s needs. Remote sensors within the flying technology can capture 3D and Light Detection and Ranging (lidar) data to provide comprehensive aerial insights, such as the geographic region where a new building is to be constructed.

Lidar involves using a laser scanner, GPS and inertial navigation system attached to a UAS to record data. Photogrammetry is also used by these devices to take a large number of pictures aerially, stitching together the images to examine the area from top to bottom visually to gain a better understanding of the topographic and physical features that might be in the area.

These captured images and data sets can then be used to create 2D and 3D models for clients and project teams to plan construction around and to develop better insight into the challenges that a geographic region might pose, such as rocky terrain or changes in elevation. Additionally, greater insight into the terrain provides greater ease of access to a site for a project team.

Environmental teams especially benefit from having this aerial data at their fingertips. Invasive and protective species can be identified using the UAS sensors to help the team develop a strategic plan for mitigating damage in the environment. Aerial imagery also supports right-of-way management, as images can reveal locations of buildings, hazards and vegetation encroachment.

Storm Resiliency Efforts

With Hurricane Ian knocking out power to 2.6 million and causing billions of dollars in damage in September 2022, the need for storm recovery efforts are greatly apparent. Many are looking to use UAS as part of the recovery effort with major weather-impacting events increasing in frequency and continuing to affect millions of people. When roads are destroyed or blocked during impactful weather events — and over land travel is no longer a feasible, straightforward or a safe option — a UAS can supply aerial footage that provides information on broken levees, damaged homes and buildings, and information on where victims might still be located. Time is crucial in the minutes and hours immediately following such a major weather event, when it comes to saving lives. This information also provides crucial insights for emergency first responders to safely navigate an area where power lines might be downed by a storm or roads are considered impassable.

“UAS can provide highly dense data in situations where this information needs to be made available quickly,” says Coryell Kelsey, senior technology and innovation consultant at Burns & McDonnell. “Tornadoes, hurricanes and massive winter storms will continue to happen. Remote sensing technology lends itself well to help emergency first responders in those dangerous scenarios.”

While considered a major benefit for storm resiliency, navigating increasingly complicated airspace poses significant challenges. While capturing data for a small commercial project might require approval from only a project manager or other internal source, the situation following a major weather event is often more complex. Opening up the airspace for storm recovery efforts introduces the challenge of adequate communication between emergency first responders to prevent crashes from occurring as a result of overlapping flying devices.

The use of unmanned aerial systems is expanding, extending across all industries. Large initiatives, such as hardening the grid, involve hundreds of miles of transmission lines and other electrical infrastructure. Assessing these geographic areas, as well as the actual assets, with aerial imagery and cataloging that information into cohesive and informative touchpoints will be crucial as these projects progress.

“The biggest challenge with capturing UAS data is taking that information and interpreting it in a way that is useful,” says Nathan Kilgore, a senior geologist at Burns & McDonnell. “Knowing how to integrate data into a forward-thinking model for teams to make sense of is what the technology is best used for.”

When access to a project site is restricted or blocked, and where preplanning or project progress is needed, UAS can be rapidly deployed to acquire site-specific data that helps project teams make critical decisions.

Thought Leaders

Coryell Kelsey

Senior Technology & Innovation Consultant

Nathan Kilgore

Senior Geologist