Surveyor Storytime with Brandon: High-Tech Surveying

5 min

Throughout my career, I have worked as a survey technician performing topographic surveys, boundary surveys, and construction staking. I have also worked as a computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) technician, working with numerous drafting, GIS, and point cloud processing software packages. One of the things I like about the surveying profession is the fact that there are so many different and varied opportunities to collect and work with spatial data. It is widely agreed upon that surveyors have the coolest toys, I mean tools.
While I have experience with standard surveying equipment, such as GPS, robotic total stations, LiDAR scanners, and levels, I am fortunate to have my FAA Part 107 sUAS (drone) remote pilots certificate. I get to fly a drone to collect essential data that our clients can use to make informed decisions about critical infrastructure. Whenever you have an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) under your control, your primary responsibility is to keep the public safe, and I take that responsibility very seriously. Before any drone flight, an operator must perform pre-flight inspections on the equipment, prepare a detailed flight plan, and monitor the weather conditions to ensure people and property are safe from harm.
I have used drones on several projects throughout my career, but a few memorable projects stick out. One project we worked on was a boundary survey and GIS mapping application for a rural cemetery. We completed the boundary survey and prepared a plat map for our client, but we weren't satisfied with the free aerial image services available for a background map of the site. Using one of our drones, I collected half-inch resolution aerial imagery of the entire site. We utilized this image layer as a background for the final maps, and it provided a high level of detail to the finished product. At this resolution, we could identify each of the headstones. We could even identify individual flowers in the colorful bouquets placed on some!
Another project that came to mind was a rural stream where we needed to document the location of a stream over several years. Our client requested us to take video footage along several miles of a stream for three years to document erosion issues and the channel location and condition. The cool thing about this project was placing wooden stakes at 500-foot intervals along the creek. I worked with our visualization team to embed the station location labels within the video. Without this location information, it would have been difficult to compare differences in specific locations year after year accurately.
I used a drone to inspect a large urban creek on one of my more memorable projects. The video was essential to quickly identify areas where erosion occurred along the creek's banks. The drone was an excellent option for this work as it is an efficient and safe way to gather the required data. On this project, we determined we needed to fly the drone underneath a bridge with four lanes of traffic. We decided there was plenty of clearance between the bridge and the water's surface on our pre-flight walk-through and thought this was the safest way to get the data we needed. As I flew the drone under the bridge, I heard an unsettling sound when one of the rotors stopped. The drone had struck a thin metal wire hanging from the bridge deck that we did not see on our pre-flight walk-through. This wire was debris from a recent construction project on the bridge above. I slowly backed the drone away from the obstruction. As it cleared itself from the wire, it somersaulted mid-air but righted itself above the water. I was relieved when I landed it safely on the creek bank. I had to replace a nicked-up rotor blade, but at least I could complete the project and return to the office with the equipment intact.
Drones will continue to be a valuable tool that surveyors can use to collect data with high efficiency and accuracy. These are a valuable part of our surveying toolkit, but much training is required before ever working with this equipment.