It’s a beautiful spring day when I pull into the parking area – one of those clear blue sky days that makes the Fairbanks winter a distant memory. I’m at the north end of the new Tanana River railroad bridge near Salcha, not entirely sure what to expect from the drone demonstration I’ve come to watch.
Today we’re meeting with some folks from Aquilo, an Alaska-based firm specializing in unmanned aircraft. They’ll be flying one of their drones over the 40-acre site, taking high-resolution photographs and collecting elevation data. Earlier in the day, PDC Surveyors Craig Ranson and John Brady set survey control so that the photos can be orthorectified.
Here at PDC we’re interested in the ability of drones to collect aerial imagery for use in our design projects. Not only can the aerial photographs be used as backgrounds in our design drawings, but the ability of a drone to collect elevation data may make our topo surveys faster and more efficient. Taking a 3D model derived from photogrammetric methods of drone image data could reduce field time, remove crews from safety hazards, and eliminate the need to return to sites for additional data pick-ups.
The white quadcopter whirs to life and within seconds its 200 feet above us. Loaded with a pre-defined route, the drone methodically buzzes back and forth over the site. We take turns watching the live video feed on a small monitor, oohing and aahing as only techy nerds like us can.
It takes the drone less than 20 minutes to cover all 40 acres, at which time it lands itself in the exact spot it launched from. After a quick battery change the drone is back in the air. This time it’s being flown manually. Sam Vanderwaal of Aquilo positions the machine just above us for a group selfie.
With the group selfie out of the way, we barrage the Aquilo guys with questions. How long can it fly? What is the accuracy? What kinds of cameras can you use? Are there limitations? They answer our questions and pack their gear up. Amazingly, the entire system fits into a backpack.
It will take a few days to process the data and compare the drone’s accuracy with our traditional topographic survey. Once that analysis is complete I’ll share the results here with another blog post.