• Drones: Transforming stockpile volume measurement and topographic mapping

    by Michael Singer, CEO DroneView Technologies

    As one of the nation’s leading service providers focused on precision Aerial Mapping, DroneView Technologies is regularly asked many questions about drones, cameras/sensors, photogrammetry software, ground control, accuracy, IT processing and storage, privacy, safety, regulation among many other topics.

    With all of the press attention on drones and the beginning of real commercial adoption, companies of all sizes are exploring and in many cases realizing the benefits that drones can bring to their organizations.

    DroneView Technologies works throughout the United States for civil engineers, surveyors, earth moving, construction, landfill, mining and aggregate companies among others collecting aerial images using a drone or piloted aircraft. We stitch these high resolution images together using specialized photogrammetry software from which we are able to build highly detailed three dimensional models which in turn allow us to deliver to our clients precision mapping, topography and/or stockpile volume measurements.

    DroneView Technologies has flown thousands of successful missions for clients in over 20 different states throughout the country. We like to focus on complex solutions with high value add.  And, as we frame the discussion around:

    • the client’s pains or problems that are being addressed;
    • the company’s current workflow and solutions; and
    what realistic results and benefits can be achieved with drones (or planes) with a keen focus on accuracy, timeliness of relevant data, safety and cost.

    We have found that success in the commercial drone services industry requires us to have a plethora of skills and domain expertise. The requisite skills for DroneView Technologies to deliver this “whole product” solution extend far beyond our ability to safely fly a drone and capture pretty pictures and videos. We have assembled a team of industry leading professionals that bring not only drone expertise but moreover photogrammetrists, surveyors, AutoCAD and LiDAR specialists, software engineers, IT data storage, security and networking professionals, among others. This interdisciplinary team strives to help customers manage complex issues, making data more timely and available to enhance core business processes, workflow and operating efficiency.

    Successful enterprise drone projects and deployment into a company’s “mainstream” workflow all necessitate attention (and resources) focused on the following five discrete areas

    • Project Evaluation and Planning;
    • Image Acquisition;
    • Data Processing;
    • Reporting; and
    • Data Storage.

    Project Evaluation and Planning

    or would manned aircraft for image/LiDAR acquisition, terrestrial LiDAR (all of which we provide) or ground survey achieve a better result. Some of the variables include: location, requisite accuracy, desired deliverables, schedule, frequency, budget, among many others.

    Image acquisition

    Once a project is approved and appropriate service agreements, certificates of insurance, etc. are in place, the next wave of tasks and personnel begin flight planning (in the office), target site FAA clearance, mobilization to site, site reconnaissance, flight plan optimization (adjusting for GSD, height, image overlap, flight speed, weather, lighting, etc.), setting ground control, and ultimately acquiring and validating the image data.

    Data processing

    Once the imaging is captured our team of licensed photogrammetrists and data processing specialists take over. There are many photogrammetric processing options available ranging from workstation photogrammetry software and numerous cloud processing solutions. Once again, depending on the project’s requirements/complexity, labor expertise, computer resources and desired outputs some solutions are better fits than others. Often additional software and post processing is required to be able to deliver into a client’s desired output formats (AutoCAD Civil 3D, MicroStation and others).

    Reporting

    Deriving insightful and actionable data is the primary driver behind embarking on a drone program. Understanding who the stakeholders are and being able to efficiently share the resulting processed data is critical. Stockpile volume reports, orthoimagery, topographic mapping are some of the many desired outputs. Many clients prefer our secure cloud platform to receive all of their reports while some others still prefer traditional .pdf files that they can print and share accordingly.

    Data storage and secure cloud based collaboration

    Drones capture and produce very large data files. Moving hundreds of high resolution raw images can easily cripple networks and bring computers to a crawl when attempting to process data. Solving data transport bottlenecks (up/down), computer processing resources, and data security are some of many IT issues that need to be managed. As a drone program begins to scale within a large enterprise these issues quickly become problematic and grow in complexity.

    Moving forward and implementing a Drone program

    We hear from clients regularly that after much market research “they have bought a drone” and think they are “all set”. In reality, we regularly hear back from them once they have realized that there are multiple challenges that are oftentimes overlooked including:

    • Acquiring image data from multiple locations with a limited number of qualified drone operators and equipment, especially if attempting to capture month end inventory levels, is very difficult. The “weather variables” (rain, snow, high winds) add further complications to quality and timely image capture;
    • Drone equipment, like all technology, sometimes fails, necessitating equipment redundancy to maintain desired availability;
    • The computer resources and trained personnel required to photogrammetrically process numerous drone image data files is significant, many times requiring dedicated workstations and staff devoted solely to image processing and reporting;
    • Establishing consistency, reliability, accuracy and repeatability in the processes and the ensuing reported results across an enterprise is very challenging. What has worked on a pilot project on a few sites is very different when attempting to scale to multiple sites;
    • Manual editing and additional software is required in post processing to take Digital Surface Models (DSMs) to bare earth Digital Terrain Models (DTMs) to effectively draw contours and use in AutoCAD and other applications;
    • The coordination and integration of appropriate ground control is imperative to achieve the requisite and desired mapping accuracy. We have extensively tested solutions utilizing RTK/PPK that promise comparable accuracy without placing ground control and to date are unable to validate accurate mapping accuracy without the use of ground control; and
    Large image files often present unanticipated data transport and storage issues and problems.

    A drone and the ability to fly it legally and safely is only a very small component of an effective enterprise drone program. As highlighted above, it is imperative that many different skills and expertise come together to make a drone program effective and have it yield real and sustainable value to an organization.

    DroneView Tecnologies will be at booth G72201 during CONEXPO-CON/AGG.

    Feel free to contact Michael Singer, CEO of DroneView Technologies: msinger@droneviewtech.com or 800-235-9400 with questions or comments.

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