Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — more commonly called drones — are changing the world as we know it. Not since the Internet or cell phones has a technology been so quickly adopted and used for multiple applications across such a wide range of industries.

And nowhere is that more true than in the world of engineering and construction — especially when it comes to simplifying the pipeline permitting process. So how can companies capitalize on this emerging technology? Let’s break down some of the benefits and challenges of UAVs.

Benefits of UAVS

By harnessing UAV technology in the engineering environment, utilities are able to reap the benefits of more efficient workflows, faster timeframes, reduced project costs and more.

Not only can UAVs safely and efficiently capture high-resolution images that are leaps and bounds better quality than those taken by satellite, they do so at about one-fourth the cost. Additionally, UAVs can be equipped with payloads to collect valuable near-infrared (NIR) data, multispectral data, and thermal imagery to identify vegetation health and density, wetland areas, wildlife and more. This information can then be used to produce detailed design, construction and planning aids, including 3-D modeling and thermal footprints.

UAVs can also be used to capture valuable site data that can offset the need for physical surveys, which are expensive and time-consuming — and always carry safety risks. For example, UAVs can quickly collect aerial data of hard-to-access areas that would have previously required a physical survey to gather data for permitting processes, constructability considerations or site monitoring and restoration.

Understanding the Challenges

Like all technologies, UAVs do come with their own particular challenges. Companies considering UAV technology need to be cognizant of the regulatory, administrative, public relations and contractual obligations involved when implementing this new tool.

Careful consideration of the scope, timing, payload and deliverable formats are key aspects of the planning process, and to maximize benefits, limit conflict and produce usable project data, company sponsors need to know how to plan and execute an effective UAV mission for their project.

Interested in learning more about the potential UAVs hold for pipeline permitting? I was at the SGA Technical Conference on Environmental Permitting & Construction earlier this year, where I presented on this topic with Todd Kelvington from ONEOK and Brandon Morgan from Geosyntac. Together, we walked through the prospect of using UAVs for pipeline routing and permitting projects and considered some real world applications and costs.

If using UAVs as part of your engineering, planning and routing processes sounds intriguing, I hope you were able to check out my presentation. And if you couldn't make it, connect with me on LinkedIn and I’d be happy to chat about how UAVs can help solve your engineering challenges.

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As the department manager for geospatial services at Burns & McDonnell, Steve Santovasi brings more than 25 years of experience in geospatial solutions specializing in geographic information systems, mobile mapping, Web mapping, high-accuracy GPS locational services, 3-D drone mapping and UAV solutions.