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Digital Engineering & Advisory

Data capture with drones – digital engineers’ eyes in the sky

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) navigated and controlled without a human pilot onboard, but they are more than just flying devices.

For engineers, construction businesses and clients, drones are a vital tool used for capturing data. These flexible tools enable project teams to gather and collect large volumes of highly accurate information in a safer way.

Drones have changed the way we capture information. Before drones became a part of the industry, engineers and surveyors often resorted to placing or attaching cameras and other types of sensors to low flying aircraft or helicopters, and in some cases, on cranes and cherry pickers, to capture data.

The arrival of drones has provided engineers with an innovative and flexible platform which can hold several different types of sensors such as high-resolution cameras, video cameras, laser scanners, thermal cameras and electromagnetic energy (EME) sensors. 

The advantages of using drones for data capture

Capturing data using drones

  1. Improving safety – One of the most important advantages of using drones is the removal of people from unsafe and dangerous environments. Instead of requiring people to enter high risk environments, such as towers, cliffs and other tall structures, a drone can be used to inspect and survey these environments remotely in a far safer and lowered risk capacity.

  2. Improved accessibility – The size and weight of drones allow them to access places where you can’t easily fly an aircraft or use a crane. The flight envelope of most aircraft (planes and helicopters) is restricted on how low to the ground you can fly, while drones are generally allowed between 0 to 120 metres above the ground, enabling them to capture information and imagery closer and with higher resolution.

  3. Real-time progress monitoring – Typically, throughout the life of a project, sites will be inspected once or twice during the duration of the project, most commonly due to the logistic requirements of using traditional aircraft. Using drones, project teams can now conduct more frequent data capture and progress monitoring of construction and installations for a greater portion of the project.

  4. Investing in technology – Professional and high-end drones, like any other piece of smart technology, can be expensive, but they are a smart investment for engineering teams. When integrated correctly, these tools enhance progress and inform better design solutions, adding deep value to the project. Mobilising a team to gather aerial imagery and information can now be conducted more safely, accurately and shared more widely.

  5. Legality – Flying drones legally and safely requires operators have the necessary experience, training, licenses, certifications and insurance, just as is the case with the operation of other aircraft.

Challenges engineers face while using drones

  1. Restrictions enforced by regulations
    There are many rules and regulations surrounding the use of drones which are designed to improve the safety and operational use within the public environment. Operators must undergo training and hold an appropriate licence. Drone pilots are only allowed to fly aircraft in specific areas, which are mostly away from high traffic airspace locations (i.e. airports, aerodromes, heliports) and in high populated areas such as cities or sports stadiums.

    Project teams are required to seek permission to operate within restricted areas, which may take weeks to secure. Where drones have the technical capability to fly several kilometres away, regulations enforce safety-first operation to fly within the pilot’s visual line of sight, ensuring they can safely land or pilot the aircraft back to its launch site at all times.

  2. Reliance on good flying conditions
    Although a significant amount of technology allows drones to become airborne and operate with safety and stability in windy environments, they still rely heavily on good flying conditions. It may not be appropriate and safe to fly a drone if conditions are impacted by wind, rain or if there is limited visibility. When the weather conditions are not safe for flying, it recommended operators don’t launch or use drones.

  3. Data privacy
    Privacy is an issue with drones. As cameras attached to drones capture high resolution images, there may be instances where identifiable information that are not included within the scope of a project are captured. It is then the responsibility of engineers, project teams and drone pilots to appropriately manage end use of captured data to meet privacy and data security regulations.

  4. Safety precautions
    While a drone may be safer to use, some machines can weigh several kilograms and may pose a potential risk. Pilots must always operate in the safest manner, prepared for the event that something goes wrong and develop a flight plan that meets the all necessary safety requirements.

  5. Drones used recreationally
    Lowering prices and increasing capability has seen an explosion in sales of hobby drones. Many buyers operate these drones without a clear understanding of the regulations in place or the dangers of unsafe operation of the device. There have been growing instances where unsafe operations have seen a near-miss or impact with commercial aircraft, people and buildings. This has caused regulatory bodies to become stricter in implementing rules and regulations for operators in an effort to maximise safety.

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