Guest Column | December 19, 2016

Drones: How They Can Change Your Water Operations

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By John Doughty

An eye in the sky offers a new dataset for treatment plant and pipeline infrastructure planning and decision making.

As water and wastewater operations continue to upgrade, expand, and improve maintenance procedures, the new kid on the technology block can help.

Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, are usually outfitted with camera systems that can be used for aerial photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a form of photography that ties to preset data points on the ground. The visuals taken by a drone then align with the data points, enabling creation of 3D images and interactive models.

How can this help a waterline system operator, water or wastewater treatment plant, or pipeline installer?

The information collected from a drone can be used to create a comprehensive set of plans detailing a facility or underground utility system — if the utilities are in trenches and viewable from above. Over time, most water operations go through multiple stages of additions, add pipelines, or establish new phases of operations. Site information is contained in separate documents in multiple places, and perhaps only one or two of your staff who have worked with you for years know all of the ins and outs of your facility. A drone can collect thousands of photographs of existing facilities and utilities being installed or updated, and skilled surveyors and data managers can combine those images into an interactive, visual map for use in all future planning needs. Your information is then easily accessible, contained in one place, and as thorough as possible. The map includes precise measurements. The photos and informaton collected can also be turned into an Orthoprint or 3D model for engineers to use in helping design upgrades to facilities or operations.

Drones can also be used for inspections during the construction process. Rather than budgeting dollars for an inspector to walk the pipeline every few days, a drone can fly over regularly, taking photos to inspect construction progress and integrity. If an issue is found and needs to be reported, high-definition photos taken by the drone can be included in the report. In some cases, when there are disagreements between a project owner and a contractor, a drone can collect real-time information to review and pinpoint material amounts or other discrepancies.

If you’re interested in collecting your facility or infrastructure information via drone, look for an experienced surveying firm to complete the work. RETTEW was granted an exemption by the Federal Aviation Administration to use a drone for commercial purposes, which is an important factor in selecting a surveying company. The firm is also insured for drone operations. Surveyors that are well-trained in aerial photogrammetry skills know how to place control points in the right places and can quantify and qualify the data collected. Expert surveyors also use national mapping standards, ensuring a final product trusted by water and wastewater operators.

Using a drone for data collection can help you with projects ranging from updating processes to designing additions, as well as building changes, maintenance, and demolition. The specific plans and measurements detailed with an easy-to-use visual software can make your life easier as your operations continue to evolve.

About The Author
John Doughty is vice president of land development and surveying at RETTEW. He has more than 35 years of experience as a survey director, senior project manager, and geospatial data coordinator. He oversees the day-to-day operations of his groups as they provide services such as topographic surveys, land development plans, and as-built surveys. Mr. Doughty specializes in developing environmentally sensitive land use projects and has been instrumental at keeping RETTEW at the forefront of survey technology, including remote sensing, terrestrial photogrammetry, and high-definition scanning.