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A drone photo of Birch Boat Landing in Babbitt, Minnesota. IMAGE: SEH

'A Whole New View': Unmanned aircraft are revolutionizing the engineering sector

When GPS became available for surveying in engineering, it changed the industry, says Brady Woodard, construction engineering specialist for Moore Engineering Inc. in West Fargo, North Dakota. “I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t grasp onto it. It was just the new way of the industry.” Woodard and many of his counterparts see potential for unmanned aerial systems to bring a similar transformation to the engineering field.

UASs are most commonly used currently in engineering for surveying and in marketing and communications — capturing images and videos of sites before, during and after projects. But the opportunities to not only improve convenience in operations, but also increase efficiency, safety and overall capabilities are enormous. “There’s a whole lot of potential out there for these that I don’t think half the people even realize — that we don’t even realize,” says Kyle Volk, engineer and geographic information system group leader for Moore, which specializes in civil engineering.

Current Uses

UASs have been incredibly useful to Moore from a marketing perspective, says Gregory Wald, the company’s communications manager. “We work on a lot of large-scale projects, so it’s nice to take that wide view of the project and you can get a lot of interesting angles and unique shots from a drone that you can’t get with other types of imagery,” he says.

From a planning perspective, Woodard says UASs were used frequently in 2016 on Moore’s civil engineering construction projects, often before anyone set foot on the sites. “It gives you a unique perspective in being able to see the project from up above,” Volk adds. Woodard cites a channel reconstruction project where video taken by a UAS allowed clients to see the project site and get a better idea of the scope. “Civil engineering, as opposed to other disciplines, covers a wide geographic area often and I think drones are particularly useful for that reason: a birdseye view of a large area that we’re engaged with,” Volk says. “It’s a whole new view on your project.”

Woodard adds: “It’s brought a whole new realm to being able to look at some of these projects or problems we have our in the field.”

Joel Dresel, a St. Paul-based engineer and senior principal for SEH Inc., says the company uses UASs now for project photos and some surveying of wetlands, but is looking into inspections via UAS, also. Accessibility becomes an issue in some projects and unmanned aircraft could easily solve it, he says. “There are some pretty inaccessible areas on bridges. Drones might be able to take a good look where people will have a hard time getting to. Dresel also says line-of-sight studies from tall structures can be done by UAS, instead of climbers with safety equipment. “There’s probably no reason a drone can’t be doing that. A line-of-sight study might be a perfectly good use for drones.”

Dresel leads the Airport Planning and Design department for SEH and he has high hopes for UASs to be beneficial in obstruction removal from runways. “It’s very demanding to try to do a ground survey and try to pick up every tree, power pole … but a drone flying at a low level can look at those areas very broadly and we get a much better picture of the obstructions around the airport.”

New sensor packages and payloads for UASs, such as lidar — light detection and ranging — are coming out quickly, offering revolutionary technologies to benefit almost all facets of engineering, Dresel says. “The technology is rapidly changing.”

“UAS is a very disruptive industry,” says Matt Dunlevy, president and CEO of SkySkopes, a UAS service provider in Grand Forks. “It’s going to be disrupting the engineering industry — civil, mechanical, petroleum engineering. … Not in a bad way. It’ll be really exciting to see where this goes.”

Engineering firms can contract with UAS companies like SkySkopes or have UAS pilots in-house. Both Moore and SEH currently contract, but Woodard and Volk say Moore is moving toward bringing UAS operation into the company, and Woodard likely will be one of the first to fly the contraptions.

Learning to Fly

Dunlevy recommends engineering firms contract with experienced pilots to begin with, but keep data processing in-house. SkySkopes also offers SkySkopes Academy, a collection of courses and instruction on how to fly UASs.

Beyond SkySkopes Academy, Dunlevy is teaching a UAS engineering class at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks this semester. UAS in Engineering Design & Applications starts with basics about regulations and commercial operation, then launches students directly into the engineering element, putting them into groups to design and develop UAS components or applications. Faculty will test the viability of the concepts, as well as determine their impacts on the engineering industry. “We’re exposing students to the emerging role that unmanned aircraft play in both engineering and engineering design and applications,” Dunlevy says.

In its first semester, the course has drawn significant interest from both undergraduate and graduate students, mostly in the mechanical engineering field, Dunlevy says. “We’re hoping they can have a prototype and a proof of concept by the end of the semester, which is what the second two-thirds of the course focus on. “Hopefully they catch the drone bug,” Dunlevy says.

Using UASs for marketing, surveying, inspection or other processes shows an engineering firm is on the cutting edge and that it sees the value the technology brings to everyday engineering practices, Dunlevy says. “Those engineering firms that are looking into UAS, I think those are the ones that are going to be very successful.”

Woodard and Volk say their clients are aware of the burgeoning UAS industry and its potential. The benefits to agriculture are well-publicized in the region, bringing better overall awareness of UASs, their uses and what they can capture, Volk says.

“Clients are looking for it and it’s another service to provide,” Woodard says. “We’re right on the tip of the iceberg right now.”