Safe, Efficient, All-Around Better; Our Drone Work​

When we speak of “laser pulses,” we’re not writing about science fiction, but science fact. While engineering is a timeless tradition with deep ties to our past and present, it’s worth noting that the future is happening faster and faster.

The topic of Artificial Intelligence is a hot one now. The idea of streamlining and automating our world’s industries might be scandalous to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen regardless. Drones and LiDAR are just one example of when, instead of taking a job from a human, you simply put them in the pilot seat and let the technology do the brunt of the work. Robotics, AI, and automation are tools—when in the right hands (human hands) they’re a boon to our innovation and productivity. We thought we’d sit down with Jacob Cash, our 3D Mobile Mapping and LiDAR Department Manager and FAA Certified Part 107 Pilot to get his take on how drones are revolutionizing surveying.

If You Want the Right Tool, You Need the Right Person (and the Money)

Automation isn’t a trick, nor is it cheating. You still need capable people who can navigate the technology and even think of novel ways to use it. Not to mention, cutting-edge tech doesn’t come cheap.

“Currently we have our flagship WingtraOne Gen II Drone as well as our Parrot Anafi Thermal Drone,” explains Jacob. “Between these two, you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars in equipment.”

We’d like to mention, too, that the most expensive component in this trio isn’t the two fancy drones at our disposal, but the man who uses them to produce precise results. This is to say that investing in technology isn’t as straightforward as putting the newest and greatest thing on your charge account. You must know how and when to use it. Jacob is one of the best people in our business when it comes to this technology.

Fast, Faster, Fastest

With the help of technological improvements and AI, our WingtraOne Gen II Drone is as close as we can get to live survey results. It’s a huge departure from the days of reading measurements with pencil and paper, and even quite a bit more innovative than the digital tools we were using as recently as 5 years ago. Jacob explains the perks of this huge investment.

“I could talk your ear off about the Wingtra. It’s one of a very few drones that are “blue certified,” meaning they are allowed to be used on government projects. This drone is one of maybe 2 total drones that are not produced in the US but are allowed to be used for these purposes.

The WingtraOne is a vertical take-off and landing drone (VTOL,) so it takes off and lands in a vertical position. This is important for a drone that flies like a plane. Being VTOL allows it a very minimal takeoff area. This is very useful in a construction environment where space is often limited or awkward.

Flight times on the WingtraOne are also much faster than a four-prop traditional drone, making downtime on a major construction site minimal. Processing with WingtraOne is also a bonus. All flights are uploaded to a cloud-based service that AI generates a deliverable on-the-fly. QA/QC (Quality Assurance/Quality Control) is done internally which makes processing and sending results more streamlined. Wingtra has asked us to be a part of the beta program on this new AI based service. We have the only prototype in the US and only 2 exist in the world. I’m excited about this opportunity!”

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: What’s a Thousand Pictures?

“I love the old saying,” says Jacob. “a picture is worth a thousand words. With the LiDAR and drone technology we’re working with today, we’re taking thousands of pictures and capturing millions of data points. Not only that, but we’re using AI tools to interpret, filter, and present this data in ways no single person could. I think it’s about time we modernize that mantra; we’re doing more than taking pictures these days, and data has never been so freely available and understandable.”

Jacob also explains that working with drones is safer, more efficient, and more precise. Our field workers are pilots; they’re still using their intuition and expertise; it’s just backed with automated technology that handles much of the detail work for them and does it better than they could to boot.

Automating Analysis

Drones are great inspectors. They can go where no man or woman can and do it without the worry of safety. Inspection and structural analysis, thanks to drone observation, can be done in a play-by-play fashion, just as if it was a football game.

“I use the Parrot to assess structures. We usually record the flights and take still shots for analysis. Most of the assessments are for our structural team. They run through the video and assess as they are watching. Once they see a problem area they can pause the video, take a still shot, annotate the image, and document those in their records.

The Parrot has thermal sensors that I use to find heat loss in buildings and thermal leaks in industrial flumes. A person can only do so much with handheld sensors, but a drone can reach every nook and cranny and show us any possible issues.

You can model using photogrammetry—think of that scene in the first Matrix where Neo dodges all those bullets and the camera spins around him in 3D. They did that by taking a sequence of photos and splicing them all together to create a three-dimensional model of the space. That was a big deal in 1999, a huge leap in technological innovation. Drones do that with the push of a button, giving you a fully rendered model of a space, which you can navigate, annotate, and measure.”

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Let’s put the AI debate to rest. In any industry, especially engineering, the key to success is working smarter not harder. Hard work can only get you so far—it has to be combined with ingenuity and intention to be scaled into anything meaningful.

Our investment in drones reflects this philosophy. Yes, we can do it the old way, and we still do when a situation calls for it. However, we’d rather investigate ways to amplify our skillset, get more for less, and get it done more precisely in the process. Our investment in drones and our explorations into automation is simply a way of spreading our expertise further.