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Most of us are now familiar with the sound: a high-pitched whir that grabs your attention and makes you crane your neck toward the sky. Whether it’s your neighbor kid’s toy, a photographer at a sporting event, or a professional on a job site – there’s no denying the power of drones. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 770,000 drone registrations have been filed in the past 15 months – and more are added daily. On a commercial level, drones are being used for everything from real estate photography to avalanche control at ski areas. Their biggest benefit? The ability to go where humans can’t (at least not easily).

It’s not surprising that drones have made their way into environmental consulting projects as well. Over the past year, SWCA has seen its list of certified Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots grow from one to nearly a dozen nationwide. Curious how drones have come into play for our industry, we recently took inventory of all the projects that have benefitted from their use. Here, we offer a few of the most creative applications we found:


1  Environmental Analysis / Cayucos, California

SWCA has long provided expert environmental support to San Luis Obispo County’s Planning Department on multiple projects throughout the Central Coast, and in 2015 our staff began work on an environmental analysis for a proposed private road extension in the small community of Cayucos. The work was conducted to support the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report required for the proposed Gilbert Avenue Road Extension Project to move forward in the design, permitting, and construction phases.

One of the key issues identified at the outset of the project was the site’s geology. The project site is in an area with steep slopes and landslide potential. The hillsides above Cayucos are within a designated Geologic Study Area (GSA) and due to the landslide risk, the team prepared and used aerial drone imagery during a real-time survey on site. “We used the drone images to provide 3D aerial imagery and a vantage point of the hillsides the geologists wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Emily Creel, SWCA’s San Luis Obispo Planning Team Leader. 


2 Bats and Drones in the Midwest

The Chicago office is working to incorporate drones into wildlife telemetry, specifically for use in tracking threatened and endangered bat species. Bats are difficult to track due to their small size. Larger transmitters that emit a stronger signal are unsafe for such small animals, so bat biologists must use small transmitters with a correspondingly weak signal. The radio signal can be degraded or completely blocked by trees, topography, buildings, and any other obstruction.

Biologist Drew Carson hopes to rise above these obstacles by mounting a radio-signal receiver and antenna to a drone. Currently, economically available drones have a limited carrying capacity, so Drew has designed an antenna using a carbon fiber mast and light-weight, 3D-printed components in order to safely and effectively get this project off the ground. Proof of concept testing is scheduled for this fall, with field deployment on projects during the 2018 bat survey season.


3 Identifying potential hazards before they become a problem

One of our tasks for our Oil & Gas clients is to assist with pipeline inspections and also monitor any inadvertent returns of drilling mud that make their way into surface water, such as streams. Using drones equipped with high-resolution cameras, we can identify these areas of concern much sooner than on foot, allowing the client to respond quickly. Similarly, drones can be used on development projects, mining sites, or anywhere monitoring is required. 


4 Aerial Photography and Video for Reports and Materials

The most simple and sought-after drone product has been beautiful photographs and panoramas of the project site, for clients to use in their proposals, marketing materials, and reports. The images are great for before and after exhibits and public education, as they provide a “wow” factor that resonates with stakeholders. Flyover videos can also provide a large amount of information about the project space or natural and cultural resources that are being studied. In some cases, drones can replace the use of helicopters or people on foot capturing imagery and data. 


5 Contour Maps

Contour maps (also known as topographic maps) have been used for hundreds of years, by everyone from explorers and recreational hikers to land developers, land management agencies, the mining industry, water quality experts, biologists, and cultural resource scientists.

But, historically, the process for collecting and generating accurate and high-level contours has been tedious and expensive. “Drones capture imagery at only a couple hundred feet above ground level, and so the ground sample distance, or the effective resolution, is extremely high. This provides imagery with more detail than aerial products used by most GIS systems,” says one of SWCA’s certified drone pilots. “The imagery is also available within just a few days, allowing for analysis and planning based on very recent conditions. Drones also provide a perspective on the project area that you couldn’t get from ground level.” Used for archaeological site mapping, wetland mapping, and vegetation mapping



The Drone Advantage

Using drones is cost-effective compared with manned aerial photography, in terms of acquisition costs, pilot training, and expenses per flight hour; there are also operational advantages. Along with photographs, drone imagery can be used for a variety of other products:

  • Drones can help produce 3D models with imagery (or other layers) overlaid on the model.
  • They allow people in an office or offsite to “fly” around a contoured project site and conceptualize planning ideas from different perspectives.
  • Drones allow planning and visualizing of property and land space at a detail that used to only be provided by expensive aircraft image capture.
  • Slope analysis is great for analyzing areas that might be risks for landslides, avalanches, high erosion.
  • They can help with initial planning around low-risk and high-risk areas for development, recovery, and mitigation areas.
  • They can help identify “viewsheds,” planning where you can put a watchtower that will have the maximum amount of vision in an area. Also figuring out the landscape someone might see from a certain location.
  • Used to capture the change in landscapes. Drones can be used to map and monitor changes in natural, disturbed and managed environments, especially in areas where reclamation work has occurred.