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How drones are changing the way we design, deliver and manage assets

Aurecon team operating the drone using a programmed flight path

We may be familiar with drones being used for entertainment purposes, but increasingly, they are having a significant input into how we design, deliver and manage assets.

After the New Zealand earthquakes of 2011, a drone was used to collect information from high risk areas using high definition cameras during demolition works of damaged properties on cliff tops, and during construction of debris avalanche protection works at the bottom of the cliffs in the Port Hills area of Christchurch. This eliminated sending people into hazardous locations, captured richer data and was a much faster process, providing a better, safer solution for all involved.

This engineering application has undergone continuous development since and is now being utilised in other circumstances to gather data from a site to aid in inspection and analysis, and feed it into a CAD system for design, and into computer networks for materials ordering and manufacture. High quality laser measurements, along with other drone-collected and collated data, is fed straight into the design process to streamline computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing. Taking it one step further, 3D models can be created from imagery collected by drones, laser scanning and photogrammetry, to create a virtual, interactive environment in which assets can be assessed and continually updated and monitored, for lifelong operational and capital management.

Saving lives and assets in natural disasters

As well as the New Zealand example above, a Nokia project in the UAE facilitates efficient rescue operations for first responders by bringing instant communication services through a network of specially equipped drones. ‘Saving Lives’ uses a lightweight base station that provides highly reliable, 4G network connectivity between video camera-equipped drones and a control centre. The system demonstrates how groups of drones flying in formation can efficiently search for people in a disaster area, providing images in real time, with no risk to pilots. ‘Saving Lives’ won the 2017 United Arab Emirates Drones for Good International category award.

Drone inspection and assessment of a Telco Tower.

Drone inspection and assessment of a Telco Tower

In 2015, Telstra used a drone to inspect damage to mobile base stations after major bushfires ravaged the coastal area around Wye River, Victoria. Add thermal measurement, structural scans and analysis to the drone sensor payload, and problems are speedily identified for more efficient repairs and replacements after such natural disasters.

Imagine using that same capability for multiple drones assessing infrastructure after natural disasters, and monitoring services and the safety of people across a region. Add thermal imaging, a laser radar as well as sensors to drone manoeuvrability and they are equipped for environment quality monitoring. For instance, pollution sensors and thermal cameras on drones can survey bushfire-prone areas and assets, sending data back to fire authorities in real time.

Drones are more than photography

For the built environment, the benefits of high quality, high-level data that enables fully immersive 3D functionality revolutionises design technologies and project outcomes.

Drones provide innovative approaches to data capture, linking sophisticated sensors and image capture with high level analysis tools to provide data faster, more accurately, more safely and cost effectively. Storing extensive datasets, and using them creatively and productively, is now indispensable in gaining and sustaining competitive advantage, and fulfilling community expectations.

With the utilisation of drones, or Remote Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), laser scanning, 3D imagery and photogrammetry, we can view critical facilities at a site from a virtual space back in the office, reducing the requirement to revisit sites for doublechecking information. Once this data is captured we can then use this data to further enhance future designs or processes.

As well as aiding site inspection, planning and health and safety, drones also have point cloud scanning capabilities that feed into building information modelling (BIM) and volumetric measurements to visualise design ideas with CAD models. Aurecon is currently using this capability together with ground control points to generate complex digital terrain models as a basis for concept and preliminary designs. It gives us significantly more efficiency during the options analysis phase, being quicker, covering significantly more area and replacing/supplementing detailed conventional survey.

Using drones for asset management

Drone inspection means asset management teams can conduct comprehensive, repeatable, autonomous inspections and collect imagery that can be difficult to access by traditional means. The latest technologies, such as multirotor drones and advanced sensors, allow for site scanning to be conducted more efficiently and accurately.

For example, to establish line of sight (LOS) between telecommunications sites to install a data transmission link for a new mobile base, the previous approach was to send elevated work platforms to each location, raising them to the desired transmission height and having two workers locate each other at either end. Now it only needs one drone operator with a high-quality camera to establish line of sight. This means a safer and expedited turnaround time for documentation, and delivers more accuracy across the datasets. In an early illustration of the efficiency of this approach, 27 tower paths in the Cairns area were inspected by drones, with 30 to 40 sites covered per day, compared to the elevated work platform average of two sites per day (with a 10 percent need for a revisit, when access was a problem).

While we all think of useful imagery, other advantages of drones for surveying include being able to automate topography in Autodesk, reducing the hours required to convert survey information into CAD platforms. As there is a significant improvement in the overall quality and complexity of data, using drones in combination with traditional manual surveying delivers huge productivity and accuracy gains across a tower survey budget.

Aurecon’s approach to asset management goes beyond just collecting data for condition assessment. As seen in Figure 1, drones are used, along with laser scanning and photogrammetry, to capture data which can then be used to create a virtual model. While this model can be used for condition, compliance and capacity assessment, it provides whole-of-life applicability, whereby the data can be accessed (and continually updated) to formulate on-going maintenance schedules, options assessments, operational procedures and strategic planning, asset upgrades, training manuals and more. Data collected in this way has no impact on site operations, is faster, safer, more reliable and of a higher quality.

Aurecon recently used this technology for a Wastewater Treatment Plant Condition Assessment project in North Queensland, utilising our digital asset data capture capabilities to enable a more comprehensive data set. The client will also be able to use this data to further enhance future designs or processes.

  Aurecon's Asset Condition Assessment Methodology adds significant whole-of-life value.

Aurecon's Asset Condition Assessment Methodology adds significant whole-of-life value. Click the image to enlarge.

In late 2017, Australia’s major telecommunications company, Telstra, had 9000 operating mobile network sites, covering 2.4 million square kilometres. The opportunity to create value by increasing inspection efficiencies and capturing data for whole-of-life applicability is obvious. Drone inspection of power and mobile phone infrastructure means there is no physical requirement for a rigger onsite, so nothing needs to be turned off for the task.

In February 2017, Eni, an Italian oil and gas company that operates 9,241 active wells in over 66 countries, adopted comprehensive drone inspection routines so that efficient and detailed aerial inspections would reduce downtime of plants and assets, reduce overheads for temporary infrastructure (such as scaffolding or cranes) and improve data collection, and hence analysis.

What took humans eight weeks of life-risking inspection can now be completed by drones in just five days. The drones provide more accurate data and more frequent condition reports, safely.

Aviation rules for drones

Drones have enabled more frequent, safer and accurate tower (and line) inspections, including incident response. But even in remote areas, aviation rules apply.

Mobile phone towers, like rail lines, and pipelines, and the high voltage transmission networks for power distribution, are located in cities, towns, rugged bushland and across remote areas.

Aurecon holds a Remote Operator Certificate and has a team of trained and fully CASA-licensed drone operators utilising multirotor drones, amphibious drones, DJI drones as well as customised models for specific purposes. The models deployed have fully autonomous features for obstacle avoidance, and can use computer vision to identify objects, for instance a specific person, and follow them, keeping, for example, the subject of filming perfectly in frame.

The future of drones is now

Looking more broadly at the impact of technology, drones are at the nexus of two breakthrough developments:

  • Implementing the Internet of Things technology
  • Cloud-based technology

Aurecon is already using smart sensors to collect data, on the back of the IoT technology. We are also storing collected data on a cloud-based platform to enable shared access and real-time viewing and input into databases of asset information, for greater collaboration.

This marriage of these two developments means several people on a design team can interrogate a model at the same time. Architects, engineers, contractors and service providers can identify features or concerns that have not been identified on drawings and in specification projections. This viewing can also assist in predicting workflow clashes or logistical issues, facilitating the modification of specifications prior to commencing work, resulting in better, more elegant designs, as well as saving time.

Just imagine preparing for a new telecommunications tower, for instance. Aurecon is able to add the right gear to your drone for drone-originated photogrammetry as part of site analysis, efficient wind load modelling and geospatial data. The drones’ 3D imagery and sensor data fed into CAD and available to engineers and designers could reduce a three to four-month site selection and tower design and drawings process to just a few weeks.

According to Aurecon, drones’ 3D imagery and sensor data fed into CAD could reduce a three to four-month site selection and tower design and drawings process to just a few weeks.

3D model of telecommunications tower 

Drone-based construction is probably not far away either.

With over 1.1 million kilometres of submarine communications cables in service globally, a new generation of sensors, cameras and communications will see amphibious drones commonplace tools for this infrastructure too.

Delivering benefits with drones

At Aurecon, we’re thinking about how we can make the impossible possible now, by using drone technology to capture, connect and deliver better outcomes for our clients.

Aurecon’s global teams are delivering geospatial business systems and software solutions as part of an organisation-wide building information modelling (BIM) strategy. Spatial technologies are a key component, as they provide tools for data capture, processing and visualisation of complex engineering and architectural models, including the management of LiDAR and UAV aerial capture.

We are working with clients to utilise the benefits of using drones as data capture tools to enable 3D design and analytics. They capture data and imagery, often in places that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Aurecon is already undertaking telecommunication tower surveys using drones to create efficiencies, improve quality and increase safety for owner/operators.

We have global capacity in UAV operation, research and development. When collecting images by drone, we utilise a high-resolution camera that can deliver razor-sharp details and smooth colour gradations. We ensure that ground control points are used in all site captures and allow for an 80% lateral overlap in images to ensure accuracy. Once the UAV has been landed, all photographs and data are downloaded and checked prior to leaving the site, enabling an immediate re-run if needed.

Software developers are creating UAV-specific software that can include:

  • Photogrammetry, for making maps and scale drawings from aerial photographs
  • Light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data
  • Infrared and humidity readings
  • Object recognition/many other sensors and data collection options

This level of detail makes models more accurate and provides a wealth of inspection and analysis information. There is now a drone with microprocessors on board to enable image recognition capability that can even evaluate text (such as sensor gauge readouts).

The drone is just the tool to get the camera or other sensors in the right place – Aurecon also uses a semi amphibious wheel mounted robot to undertake inspections down pipes. There is no reason why we won’t be able to create a custom tool to collect whatever data is needed for any application.

Get on board the drone flight to change

So, don’t hold off until whatever is coming next arrives in the marketplace. It is vital to embrace the benefits from this phenomenon to deliver efficiencies to our built environments. The buzz about drones is a lot more than eyes in the sky and prompt deliveries; these tools are future ready assets we all need to understand and use!


About the author

Ralph Loesche is a civil engineer, project director and technical director with Aurecon, assisting clients in the design, planning and delivery of projects across transport, industrial, water, commercial and residential developments. He is also trained in Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) and is a registered RPAS pilot.

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