UAS could play valuable role in infrastructure mapping, surveying

By Patrick C. Miller | May 21, 2015

One of the greatest commercial opportunities and most important uses of unmanned aerial systems in the mapping and surveying field might be to monitor aging infrastructure in the U.S. 

A panel of five experts in the photogrammetry field addressed the topic of emerging commercial markets for mapping and surveying during the AUVSI Unmanned Systems conference and expo in Atlanta earlier this month.

Representing the Management Association for Private Photogrammetric Surveyors (MAPPS), panel moderator Chris Ogier said there’s a growing crisis in infrastructure where failures can occur in such areas as transmission lines, railways and pipelines.

“We’ve built and built and built and have not monitored properly,” he said. “The problem’s not going away. It’s not fear-mongering, it’s reality.”

Ogier believes that more emphasis needs to be placed on using UAS for the mapping and surveying purposes at which it excels and does so more safely. To illustrate his point, he told of receiving a hard drive he ordered online from Amazon within 45 minutes on a Sunday.

“It got me to thinking about delivery and everything else. How much faster do you need it?” he asked. “Is it about delivery or is it about effective use of the system to solve society’s problems?”

Don Wiegel, Airware product vice president, emphasized the potential scope of the problem. In the U.S., there are 517,000 miles of utility lines, more than 200,000 cell towers. 61,000 wind turbines, and 2.5 million miles of gas pipeline. Globally, there are 100,000 mines and quarries, as well as 4,000 offshore oil rigs.

“Climbing cell towers is the most dangerous job in America,” Wiegel noted. “About 15 people fall and die every year. A live flare stack is impossible to inspect while in operation. You have to shut it down at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per minute.”

Using UAS to do what he called the “dirty, dusty and distant jobs” more safely and efficiently offer a significant cost-to-benefit ratio, Wiegel explained.

“We have partners doing surveying of high-power transmission lines at a cost that’s five times lower than performing surveys with helicopters,” he said.

Based on Airware’s experience, Wigel believes the greatest challenge comes from the fact that no two UAS applications are alike.

“How do you build aircraft, sensor payloads and software to be able to do all of these things without having to start from the drawing board every time you need a different application?” he asked.

The key for UAS in the remote sensing field is that the platforms need to be reliable, compliant and insurable, as well as being able to automate difficult and repetitive tasks, Weigel said. In addition, they should require minimal training, integrate with existing software and workflows, and scale across geography, time and applications.

David Yoel, CEO of American Aerospace Advisors Inc., emphasized that customers don’t want to spend hours reviewing data to get the information they need to make decisions. For example, in the gas pipeline inspection research project in which his company is involved, spotting threats that could damage the pipeline in a timely manner is most important.

“They want you to deliver the threats,” Yoel said. “They’re not interested in paying for flying. They’re not interested in sensor development. They’re interested in a data product delivered rapidly and economically and more efficiently than any other solution. It’s not about airplanes. It’s about data products.”


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