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Conducting integrated drone surveys at a congested airport

Photo: Joel Papalini/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: Joel Papalini/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Airports are extremely congested spaces, both on land and in the air, making it difficult to conduct surveys that provide insights into their continued monitoring and maintenance.

UAVs create the opportunity to survey such sites safer and faster, reducing disturbances to everyday operations while collecting a level of detail unparalleled by conventional surveying techniques to locate and accurately capture areas in need of maintenance and management on airport runways.

Following several drainage and grading issues throughout a 650-acre airport, Texas-based civil engineering company Gessner Engineering was contracted to provide surveying services to identify the most problematic regions.

The team had to conduct the survey with minimal impact on runway operations. By coordinating with the airport’s air traffic controllers, the team planned a 6–8-hour flight window, with just a few pauses for ongoing traffic, while the airport operated as usual.

Before the flight, the surveyors used senseFly eMotion flight-planning software to carry out pre-flight risk assessments and plan flights. During the survey, four 20-minute flights were completed with the senseFly eBee fixed-wing drone. With its fully autonomous and easy-to-use aerial mapping capabilities, the eBee was able to capture the high-resolution aerial photos needed to map the entire airport. The data was processed using Pix4D Mapper to generate a topographic model including a point cloud with a ground sample distance of 1.5 inches.

The point cloud was so comprehensive, it brought attention to four more areas with drainage issues, providing a level of detail that would not have been possible using only a ground GNSS base station. The UAV survey took one day, compared to four weeks for traditional surveying. This cut the project time in half and significantly reduced disturbances to airport operations.

“The savings in manpower with the shorter surveying time, accurate data retrieved, and the additional drainage issues identified demonstrate the value of drones, as an enabler of solving complex challenges in congested airspaces, especially where time is limited,” said Troy Hittle, general manager, North America, SenseFly. “The success of this project by using UAV equipment has offered new possibilities to both Gessner Engineering and the future of aviation maintenance.”

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