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How unmanned aerial vehicles help with construction projects

[Source: Daily Commercial News - Peter Kenter | Feb 23, 2012]

Never mind the fact that unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Aeryon Scout, has nosed out the lair of Central American drug dealers, assisted Libyan rebels in gathering intelligence on enemy positions, and helped plan delivery of emergency fuel to residents of Nome, Alaska after a snowstorm — it does a darned fine job of surveying isolated terrain in preparation for roadbuilding and other construction endeavours.

The Scout is the brainchild of Waterloo-based Aeryon Labs Inc., which launched the UAV in 2007. The robot weighs less than three pounds and uses a lithium-polymer battery to power four propellers that provide the Scout’s lift, stability and forward thrust.

To keep operation of the Scout as simple as possible, users pre-plan the flight by indicating a series of GIS co-ordinates they want the UAV to cover on a touch control pad, specifying the altitude (typically under 400 feet) and the number of images required. The Scout does the rest, snapping high-resolution digital photos as it flies, while sending back streaming video to the operator. The Scout flies for about 25 minutes on a single charge, covering a range of about three kilometres and back.

400-foot high view

“In a roadbuilding application, you would indicate the co-ordinates that follow the intended route of the road in AutoGrid mode, set the image resolution, and desired overlap of images, then send the Scout out to do the work,” says Ian McDonald, vice-president of marketing at Aeryon. “When the Scout returns, the images are already GIS-tagged and can be stitched together to make a high-resolution mosaic of the proposed route.”

The image data can also be transformed into colour-coded, three-dimensional images that display elevations of various features of the terrain.

“For roadbuilding, we see the Scout used to plan equipment placement, and to record construction progress which can be communicated to site staff and project owners on a daily basis,” says McDonald.

Aeryon Scout

The Scout can also be instructed to simply follow the location of the control tablet at a specified height and distance, recording any features of the road that a human project inspector might be examining down below.

McDonald says that traditional satellite images frequently fail to supply the level of detail required to plan a road construction project, particularly in rural and remote areas. The images are also often months out of date.

“Aircraft reconnaissance using airplanes is considered expensive and limited to the availability of the aircraft,” says McDonald. “If physical obstacles such as hills and other changes in elevation make it difficult to get clear images, why expose the pilot to that danger? The construction site supervisor can operate the Scout without calling on anyone.”

Cold winter weather? Also not a problem. On the Nome mission, the Scout flew at temperatures of -33 C in 50 kilometre-per-hour winds.

McDonald says the company views the Scout more as a product platform than an aircraft. Company offerings are evolving as new software capabilities and new payloads are added. Current options include thermal cameras for night surveillance, and air quality samplers. The most recent option is a three-axis, high-resolution camera that provides increased image precision.

Currently, a basic Scout system providing everything the user needs to send the Scout into the air and bring back images retails for about $100,000.

McDonald notes that some operators express initial concern that the Scout will run out of batteries on a reconnaissance mission.

“Battery levels are reported continuously,” he says. “But one of the failsafe features of the Scout is that it knows when it’s going to run out of battery power. When it gets close to its limit, it flies back to you and waits for you to swap batteries before it’s off to the races again.

 

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