NEW JERSEY- Anyone who knows the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) mission understands the organization does a lot of remote data collection surveying. The robust and demanding USACE survey and geospatial mission can take survey technicians to some treacherous terrain, not to mention desolate locations both on and offshore. The survey teams experience a variety of challenges ranging from location to accessibility to environmental conditions. The arsenal of traditional imaging and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) surveying tools such as those attached to vessels, vehicles, or totable on humans have their limitations. These limitations have energized the New York District’s survey team to advance beyond traditional methods by commencing deployment of piloted unmanned aerial survey drones.
Miguel Surage, civil engineering technician, and Christopher Aballo, cartographic technician, New York District, work in the Survey Section of the Operations Division at Caven Point Marine Terminal in Jersey City, NJ. Their team’s innovative approach to remote sensing data collection and surveying is changing the way USACE is conducting its surveys worldwide. Over the past 10 years, their team has been improving and streamlining the survey and geospatial-data collection capabilities by incorporating LiDAR systems into survey boats, vehicles, and having even created a data collection backpack. In the past, a topographic surveys used to take a significant amount of time, sometimes stalling important processes and missing project milestones. The accuracy of surveying and mapping is limited to the tools at hand, and they wanted to continue to improve their tools not only for the District, but throughout USACE.
The New York District’s Survey Team were no strangers to USACE Headquarters in Washington, DC, having hosted, in recent years, the annual PROSPECT Surveying Course as well as revolutionizing some surveying techniques. These techniques included the use of an all-terrain utility vehicle called ‘the buggy,’ as well as building their very own LiDAR backpack, providing them greater access and mobility to collect geospatial data. Realizing the opportunity to take their innovations a step further, District personnel proposed to HQUSACE the idea for a survey data collection drone program. HQUSACE had already been working on a way to streamline the certification process for drone operators nationwide, and signed off on the New York District’s team’s efforts to continue incorporating drones into their surveying work.
With official approval from Headquarters to lead the efforts and move forward with the survey drone program, the survey team quickly initiated efforts to certify drone operators. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that all small unmanned aircraft operators get a “part 107” pilot’s license to include passing the written test for a manned aircraft pilot’s license. This was no easy task, as the six (6) certified FAA Part 107 drone operators in the Surveys Section had to study for a month with all successfully passing the FAA exam. The next challenge was to obtain the drone(s) to complete the surveys. HQUSACE had drones they were lending to nearby districts to get their unmanned aerial vehicle programs “off the ground”. The New York District team was given a senseFly Professional Mapping Drone, fully equipped with an obstacle avoidance system and a high-definition 360-degree-capable video and still camera. The survey team put the drone to immediate use collecting up-to-date video and photographs of the District’s Operations and Maintenance inlet dredging and shoreline restoration work, something they previously had to use outside public mapping platforms to accomplish. This capability instantly gave the District the ability to obtain a complete picture of dredging and coastal storm risk reduction restoration operations, like the successful East Rockaway Navigation Inlet work. The difference was the drone-collected data and video footage were recorded in real-time as the work took place showing the progress as it was accomplished. This innovation saved the District time and funding, thus proving that the District’s Survey Section was ready for their own state-of-the-art data collection drones.
After completing the evaluation process necessary for purchasing drones to serve New York District’s needs, the team knew that they needed a specific drone type that could carry its sensitive and heavy LiDAR equipment for hours at a time and in varying weather conditions. Their research indicated they would need a custom-built drone and led them to the experts at Harris Aerial in Florida to help fulfill the requirements. The new drone is hybrid powered with a battery and a small on-board gas-powered generator that recharges the battery. The unmanned aerial vehicle is 100% adaptable for any situation, terrain, or weather event the survey crew might face. The drone is built for maneuverability in up to 20 MPH winds and at maximum allowed FAA altitudes. It comes with an auto-pilot mode, as well as an emergency kill switch, in case a person or wildlife gets too close on the ground or in the air. The gas-powered generator can be removed, allowing the drone to operate only on battery power, which is beneficial if the team needs to collect data in low noise or sensitive environments.
When combined with their traditional surveying and LiDAR technologies, the survey models and visual mapping are one-of-a-kind. This drone technology allows project delivery teams to see their project areas and environments in greater detail and more quickly in real-time.
The drones have not only allowed faster, and more accurate survey data collection, they have also given the District the ability to produce digital maps and geographic information system (GIS) mapping products in-house. Previously, GIS data was often acquired from outside the District, however, this new ability has now streamlined and decreased costs on some of the higher-profile studies and projects. The drones can also be used in the District’s emergency response work, documenting conditions in an area that has been flooded or impacted by a disaster event.
The District’s Survey Team isn’t done and is continuing to explore new and exciting ways to use these drones as well as acquiring additional units for more complex mission assignments. They will continue to promote innovation and guide the District and USACE forward by incorporating unmanned aircraft operations to further the mission of New York District and take it to places “above and beyond.” Until then, the rest of the world should excitedly watch New York District as it continues to seek ways to innovative approaches using new technologies in remote sensing data collection exploration which will undoubtedly improve the lives of millions.