Drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs) are changing the way architecture, engineering and construction firms view projects and accomplish tasks in the field. Increasingly, professionals on-site are using drone technology to enhance their quality of work, reduce risks and improve efficiency. 

In particular, drones are helpful when managing municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4) compliance projects. When assisting Grandview, Missouri, with its MS4 compliance, Burns & McDonnell utilized drones to great effect. Grandview is required to do routine inspections of city facilities, including fire stations, community centers and parks, to evaluate how stormwater runoff is managed. Comprehensive documentation of these inspections is required based on stormwater regulations.

Using drones to complete the inspections of Grandview's city-owned parks simplified the process and shortened the amount of time required for each inspection. Drones were deployed to get an overview of the land; take large-scale, time-stamped photographs; and scout the area for potential hazards, waste and other noncompliant items. That data was then used to focus attention on key areas of potential noncompliance that needed to be investigated and documented further.

Some of the key benefits drones bring to a project include:


Drones mitigate safety risks by minimizing the need for human surveyors. As in the case of the Grandview project, the drone pilot and inspector were able to avoid many of the slip-and-fall risks associated with streambanks and general park terrain. Drones easily fly over fences, over streams and across rubble piles that otherwise would have to be traversed on foot. In general, inspection teams are less exposed to risks when they are commanding a drone safely from a secure space.


The ability for a drone to take comprehensive images for later in-office review is a valuable asset. An inspector’s time in the field needs to be maximized to address necessary competing priorities, so having the ability to review images at a later time is a value-add. Drones can safely fly more than 30 mph, thus allowing large areas of ground to be covered more efficiently than on foot. Research shows that the small costs associated with operating drones are offset by the time saved using them. 
For example, to use a drone for the inspection of Grandview’s Shalimar Park (approximately 15 acres), an operator and inspector were required on-site for one hour to fly and collect footage. For these two professionals to walk that same acreage and use cameras and video to take images would likely have taken three to four hours, without equivalent imagery that could be easily revisited. In addition, sections of the site not easily traversed would be difficult to inspect.


Drone imagery brings a new level of quality to a project’s workflow by giving inspectors the ability to capture imagery from previously unattainable angles. Drones capture high-altitude images that encompass the entirety of a site, while also flying up close to take detailed shots of difficult-to-reach culverts, streambanks and stormwater outfalls. All the imagery is automatically stamped with time, date and coordinates for consistency and can give drone users the ability to quickly locate when and where an image was taken. This fulfills a necessary documentation requirement for MS4 compliance: providing a snapshot of a space at the time of inspection that serves as an easy reference point for an inspector to revisit as needed.

The adoption of UAV technology in the management of MS4 compliance offers a promising path toward improved efficiency, cost-effectiveness and regulatory compliance. By leveraging the advanced capabilities of drones for data collection, monitoring and public engagement, municipalities can significantly enhance their stormwater management practices. This not only helps in meeting the stringent requirements of MS4 permits but also contributes to the broader goal of protecting water quality and public health.


As UAV technology continues to evolve, its role in environmental management and compliance is set to become even more pivotal as project owners look for innovative solutions to age-old stormwater management challenges.

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Adam Reichert is a civil designer with more than 10 years of experience specializing in roadway design and drone photogrammetry.