UAS: The Must-Have Survey Tool

Engineers, surveyors and UAS entities explain the real-life work case for UAVs from experience gained in the field.
By Ann Bailey | April 18, 2016

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are the newest supplemental tool for many established engineering and surveying firms. For numerous startup UAS entities, performing engineering and surveying services represents a clear path to economic feasibility. We spoke with established engineering and surveying firms and UAS companies to highlight how each are operating—and benefiting at— their respective organizations with UAS.

Experienced UAS Surveyor
Utah entrepreneur Dave Terry’s model airplane hobby propelled him toward a UAS surveying business.

Terry, owner of Silverhawk Aerial Imaging in Ogden, started his business in 2014 after flying model airplanes for 20 years, he says.

“I saw the value and power of it and that’s what drove me to do it as a business,” Terry says.

Silverhawk Aerial Imaging primarily conducts data acquisition for industrial companies, using a UAS mounted with a camera to take video and still images of land, buildings and infrastructure. Clients include engineering firms, developers and the mining industry.

Silverhawk Aerial Imaging uses numerous UAS platforms for surveying, including several DJI platforms.  “We will have a client that has a pipeline they need inspected or they will want us to run a thermal camera over the pipeline to determine the leak,” Terry says.

UAS has the edge over full surveying because it can capture images more quickly and safely, he adds. For example, a UAS can replace a cherry picker normally used to survey a building to determine the location of heat loss. Sensors on a UAS can determine the heat variance from the air. 

Terry believes he has built a solid reputation in Utah and the mountain west by being on what he calls the cutting edge. “We’re pushing the envelope in terms of products and services. We’re developing the market in some ways,” Terry says.

Meanwhile, his company has developed relationships with others in the UAS industry and with federal agencies. The company is a member of the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance, a partnership with Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems, Utah State University and the Utah Film Commission. The goal of the alliance is to make Utah a hub for the commercial development, testing and use of UAS.

Silverhawk Aerial Imaging is working with officials with Hill Air Force near Ogden to gain permission to fly in the military’s air space.

In addition to its relationship-building efforts, Terry says the team is working to educate the region on UAS.

“I feel we do a pretty good job at educating customers about what is out there and what is happening with the company,” he says.

Terry believes that surveying with UAS has the potential to develop into a vibrant industry. One of the biggest challenges for potential UAS companies is that they need to get a pilot’s license to fly UAS, Terry says, adding that Silverhawk Aerial Imaging has two pilots besides him.

“There are a lot of obstacles right now, but I think if those barriers to entry come down more people will get into it,” he says

Preflight Startup
In Fargo, N.D., Joey Schmit, is tackling the barrier of obtaining a pilot’s license. While he is waiting for the FAA to approve the 333 exemption he applied for in October 2015, Schmit is taking classes to get his private pilot’s license and also will be hiring employees, getting his business’ paperwork in order and forging relationships with potential clients

Schmit wants Flight Pros LLC UAS surveying business to be ready for take-off once the FAA approves his company’s 333 exemption. Schmit is gathering a fleet of UAS, including four multi-rotors he plans to use to survey for real estate companies and engineering firms when his exemption is approved.

“I have been upgrading as I go and trying to get the best fleet of drones,” Schmit says.

A professional disc golfer, who has played 200 courses around the world, Schmit says he got frustrated playing on some of the oddly designed fairways. He owns Frolfware disc golf course, in Fargo, and began using a UAS to videotape courses so disc golfers would know what to expect when they came to play his course.

He believes the timing is right for UAS surveying.

“We’re looking at doing virtual surveys. That is a very powerful tool for engineering firms and construction companies to see before and after with the drone.”

Schmit’s dream UAS machine would be one that takes high quality raw photos and images and an unmanned aircraft that has virtual take-off and glides like a helicopter, he says.

“The cohesive package is what we’re looking for,” Schmit adds.

Schmit is confident that when the FAA approves his company’s 333 exemption, his business will see economic success quickly.

“Once I get my paperwork in order and am flying legally, there will be job opportunities immediately,” he says

Adding The UAS Option
Matt Schrader, vice president of Hanson Professional Services, based in Springfield, Illinois, sees using UAS as a logical next step in innovation for the 62-year old company. Hanson serves clients across the U.S. and lends support to their overseas projects.

“Not only are we an engineering company, we are an applied sciences company, so we’ve got a lot of environmental folks we’re surveying for,” he says. Schrader believes that Hanson Professional Service Inc. will eventually offer utility companies UAS surveying services.

Using UAS to survey allows the team to provide its clients with bigger pictures and more immediacy, Schrader says. For example, when heavy flooding hit Missouri this past winter, the company was able to take pictures of the damage to creek banks.

“Some of the sites we originally did with the UAS had scour and eroding done to them,” Schrader says. Using the UAS to survey quickly could show clients that damage.

“You can have near real-time imagery of the sites,” Schrader says.

While Hanson Professional Services’ main focus will continue to be on traditional surveying, using UAS provides the company with another option to offer its customers, he says.

“We’re using it as another tool for us. We’re not an aerial imaging company or aerial mapping company so we are just using it to supplement our own capabilities,” Schrader says, adding that could change in the future if there is increased demand for UAS surveying from  the company’s clients

Brookfield, Wisconsin-based R.A. Smith National Inc. is also supplementing its service offerings with UAS. The civil engineering and structural engineering and survey firm was granted a 333 exemption and certificate of authorization from the FAA in the spring of 2015 and has been surveying with UAS since, says Jon Chapman, R.A. Smith National Inc. 3D laser scanning manager .

According to Chapman, R.A. Smith National Inc., founded in the 1920s, is perceived as a mainstay in the market, making it important to stay on top of the industry’s technological advances.

“When we started seeing this technology come out in trade magazines and heard whispers in the marketplace, it really intrigued us. With the considerably small up-front investment needed to get our feet wet, we thought it was a no-brainer,” he says.

So far, most of the company’s surveying has been volumetric, Chapman says. Clients include land developers and rural building contractors who operate quarries.

Because of the specifications of the company’s 333 exemption, it has had to decline some types of jobs, Chapman said.

“You have to be very careful not to step outside the boundaries of the exemption,” he says.

Across the Atlantic Ocean in Aberdeen, Scotland, Cyberhawk has surveyed with UAS since 2008. The company operates UAS to conduct land surveys and inspections in the utilities, infrastructure and oil and gas sectors across the world, according to the company. The company’s online portal, iHAWK, provides an easy-to-use browser-based platform to disseminate survey and inspection data without the need for additional software.

Cyberhawk uses its UAS to conduct aerial surveys that include oil refineries, electricity substations, chimney stacks and offshore and onshore wind turbines.

Cyberhawk, which operates overseas from its European location, gains approval to fly with its clients relevant aviation authorities. In the United Kingdon, Cyberhawk has approval to operate under the Congested Area Operations Safety Case.

“We utilize multi-rotor and fixed-wing platforms to provide detailed surveys and inspection data to our clients in a wide variety of industrial settings,” the company told UAS Magazine via email. “With over 13,000 in individual flights to our name, we offer unmatched experience and technical knowledge to our clients.” 

The company’s reputation within the UAS industry and its track record results in return customers, Cyberhawk believes. Meanwhile, the company presents at industry conferences and uses social media and its company website to promote its expertise and services.

Rapid deployment and data acquisition are major benefits for any Cyberhawk client, as well as companies seeking accurate data at an economical price, the company says.

Surveying sites from the air reduces the time on-site and the need to access all areas of the site on foot, and that has obvious health and safety benefits, Cyberhawk points out. UAS surveying provides highly detailed and accurate geospatial data with the added benefit of aerial imagery, which provides a rich source of actionable data. UAS surveys can acquire data in areas that aren’t readily accessible on foot, such as tidal, marshy or hazardous areas.

The ability to fly lower than manned aircraft many times results in obtaining higher quality data than surveying with manned aircraft, says Ryan Darling, a pilot for Darling Geomatics in Tucson, Arizona. Darling Geomatics, which began doing UAS surveying in April 2015, takes images for flood control districts, state parks and for ranchers and the mining industry.

“Typically, we can deliver quicker and it’s cheaper in most cases,” Darling says. However, the size of the project his company can do is limited to one or two square miles. The project limitations didn’t stop the team from joining the growing UAS surveying world, however. The company’s UAS surveys so far have been in Arizona, but it is willing to travel to other states if it is cost-effective to do the survey project, Darling says.

“As soon as we could get an exemption from the FAA, we got an unmanned aerial system.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
[email protected]