Words By: Max Etherington
A common challenge that organisations face when adopting drone technology is choosing platforms that are simple enough for several staff to operate, rather than only one technical manager having the knowledge required to put the company’s UAS resource to work. One such company, Aerial Applications of Pennsylvania, tackled this challenge by adopting senseFly eBee drones en masse, creating an operator-friendly fleet in order to service a time-sensitive damage assessment contract.
Waypoint caught up with the firm’s director of policy, Jeff Brooks, to explore this adoption decision and how its system choice impacted its team’s performance on the ground (read the full case study here).
Prior to October 2016, Aerial Applications primarily assigned its data collection work to a nationwide network of independent drone pilots, who would operate their own preferred aircraft on-site. However when the firm was awarded a time-sensitive asset monitoring contract by a major utility company in October 2016—to assess damage following Hurricane Matthew—its team quickly realised the potential benefits of operating a standardised drone platform.
“Had we gone with a ‘bring your own drone’ approach there would have been no easy way to standardise the data we got from our pilots,” explains Aerial Applications’ Director of Policy, Jeff Brooks. “So we needed to adopt a platform in-house that could cover a large area, at high resolution, and that was easy for us to automate. With a consistent platform, we knew that if we needed to change, for example, the flight height, then we could do that consistently across our flight teams and our drones.”
Prior to the contract, Aerial Applications’ team had already begun researching a standardised drone platform that it could adopt in-house to meet the needs of its industrial business clients.
“Our engineers had already pulled the specs on ten or fifteen different airframes,” says Brooks. “We then made a pros and cons list for each, to do an apples to apples comparison, looking at factors like how much area we could cover per mission or the cost of the airframe.”
Brooks also considered the extras that came with each system, such as whether a drone included flight planning software or whether the team would need to employ third-party software. “That’s not really what we wanted to do; in an emergency situation everything has to just work,” he says. “So anything we could do to shorten that loop—one fewer thing that could break—that was crucial for us.”
A lightweight platform was key, as was the standardisation of data, required for simple and effective deliverable creation after the flights. “We needed data consistency, reliability and ease of use, and those factors are where the senseFly eBee system really shines,” Brooks explains. “It also has good endurance and intuitive eMotion flight planning software, which we needed to be able to easily train our pilots on.”
This quick training ability was crucial for the damage assessment project, which required a rapid deployment. “We had to be faster than people going out in cars. That was the big benchmark,” Brooks says.
On-site, the Aerial Applications crew used quadcopters to scope out each area, looking for easy-access areas where staff could take off and land their eBees. After that, all the deliverables the company supplied were produced using fixed-wing data.
The team supplied its first orthomosaics, alongside tagged photos featuring the coordinates of each instance of asset damage (such as downed cables), to its client within 48 hours of arriving on the scene. This handover of deliverables then continued daily on a rolling basis as staff processed the images on-site. “During our ten days we covered 160 square miles, flying 150 flights over six days and taking 75,000 images.” Brooks says. “In total we identified the precise coordinates of 117 sites where infrastructure assets had been damaged.”
The telco client was very pleased with the service provided. “Because we were right there alongside them, having this closed loop, if the data wasn’t enough or they had comments on it, we could take that into account really quickly and apply that change across all the eBees, such as flying lower to get a higher ground resolution,” Brooks adds.