Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are finding their way into more and more applications every day. More commonly known now as drones, the small aircraft are more than just a hobby and are coming into their own throughout many commercial niches. The environmental sector is no different.
Improvements in drone design, particularly to battery life and electronics, means that UAVs today have much greater functionality than they did just a few years ago. As such, a vast array of projects can benefit from the bird’s eye view they offer.
There must be a better way
As an example, let’s look at a large-scale soil remediation project that requires soil excavation. In this situation, property owners incur costs based on volumes of soil excavated. Therefore, volume accuracy is paramount. Usually, an independent surveyor with manual on-site measures is used to measure and calculate the volumes of soil.
- Health and safety risks stemming from high rates of foot traffic on site and around machinery in an unstable environment
- It is not the most cost effective, as more time is required to monitor a large site
- Manual measures are less accurate than UAV
For a large site, there may be tens, or even hundreds of excavations happening in parallel. This simply acts as a multiplier for the issues listed above. The incurred time and financial costs can escalate quickly, as can the health and safety risks.
Controlling costs, improving data, and operating safely with UAVs
In the above scenario, the use of a single UAV and pilot allows to better control costs, calculations, and health, safety and environment (HSE). A UAV can fly over the site to capture baseline images before soil excavation begins. Later, images can be taken during and after excavation. By comparing these images, it is possible to take measurements and calculate soil volumes on screen.
Key benefits of using UAVs in this scenario include:
- Improved health and safety due to reduced foot traffic on site
- More precise volumes using standardized calculations
- Large areas can be measured extremely quickly
- It’s easier to carry out surveys more frequently
- Quick turnaround from flight measurements to volume calculations
- Huge time and cost savings
- The creation of clear documentation with imagery for authorities to use to validate excavation
Golder recently employed UAVs on a large soil remediation site in Europe. With over 150 excavations happening at any given time over a vast area, the time and cost savings for the client were immense and UAVs turned out to be an ideal solution.
3D terrain models: an amazing communication tool
3D models and visuals are fantastic communication tools for any civil or environmental project, and can aid collaboration between surveyors, engineers, planners, and other key stakeholders. In cases where UAVs are carrying out surveys and taking images, an amazing by-product is the ability to use that data to produce 3D terrain models and visualizations. In fact, in some instances, UAVs are utilised solely for this purpose.
Management and clients are not only impressed by the results, they see a high value return and achieve a greater understanding of the work at hand. Such are the capabilities of the software available today that users can virtually “walk” around a site, view the impact of critical decisions, and simulate various aspects of a project all from distant office locations. Naturally, this generates huge savings in terms of travel costs, and can vastly reduce the timescale during the early stages of a project.
Future uses for UAVs in the environmental sector
With UAV demand continuing to accelerate in the commercial sector, it is inevitable that drones will continue to evolve and improve. More and more companies will start experimenting with drones to save time and money in order to produce results that help businesses operate more efficiently. Already, we’ve used UAVs for water sampling in dangerous environments and to monitor constructed habitats in challenging landscapes, and we expect these innovative approaches to evolve even further in the coming years. While data collection methods are evolving, we maintain that the application, interpretation and analysis of this data will be the true differentiator. Applying collected data into 3D modelling and visualizations will see much wider use in the coming decade, with data from UAVs helping to efficiently support these valuable tools.