With the escalating use and endless applications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) across engineering sectors and a broad range of large and niche industries, UAVs are quickly launching us into the future of technology. And as the precision of drone technologies continues to advance and their associated costs fall, it’s inevitable that engineers who understand the ins and outs of UAVs will be towards the top of recruiting lists in the near future.
Improved efficiency, response speeds, safety, cost savings, accessibility, data accuracy, and project forecasting are all factors driving the uptake of UAVs and disrupting the world of engineering. With drones, it’s never been easier or quicker to monitor, map, maintain, and analyze large areas of land and hazardous or inaccessibles sites in real time.
So how can engineers and recruiting managers prepare for the proliferation and advancement of UAVs? What are the benefits and applications of drone technologies for environmental, energy infrastructure, agriculture, and construction sites? And what challenges and opportunities are on the horizon for drone operators, data processors, and manufacturers?
UAVs in Engineering
In essence, UAVs are unmanned aircrafts that measure, store, and deliver 3D aerial imagery, spatial data, and sensing data cost-effectively AND within seconds. Many drones used today—including multi-rotor, fixed-wing, single rotor, and hybrid VTOL drones—have thermal imaging, cameras, GPS, and remote sensors for real-time monitoring, surveying, and detection of changes in surrounding conditions. Some drones are also equipped with 3D mapping software to enhance maintenance planning, forecasting, risk management, and the design of infrastructure and systems.
UAVs are widely used for the examination and modification of large areas of land, unreachable sites, and dangerous projects or events. Examples of such sites and situations that benefit from UAVs include expansive woods, wetlands, heavily vegetated stream channels, floodplains, at risk sites that have been unstabilized from a natural disaster, and hard to reach or hazardous infrastructure, to name a few.
How UAVs Work
Drone flights are remotely monitored from the ground or using computers installed in the UAV aircraft. As such, in addition to the remotely-controlled aircraft (i.e. the UAV itself), implementation of drone technologies requires ground controllers and communications connections in order to safely and accurately capture and relay high-resolution, 3D imagery and monitoring data.
Uses of UAVs
Drones are valuable technologies for a host of civil engineers and environmental technicians, planners and surveyors, facility and asset managers, and more recently for electrical engineers as well. They’re not only practical, but they’re also cost-effective and reliable aircrafts that are quickly emerging as the next wave of technology for:
- Remote sensing and monitoring (e.g. water quality, gas leaks, power line issues, etc.)
- Ecological investigations, field assessments, and surveying
- Maintenance planning and asset management (e.g. compliance, equipment needs, etc.)
- Maintenance and repairs (e.g. vegetation trimming)
- Creating and updating reports on the condition of assets
- Erosion and sediment control inspections and other compliance checks
- Risky construction operations (e.g. transporting, assembling, and welding infrastructure components & building materials)
- Topographical mapping, heat mapping, etc.
- Lighting, supplies transportation, and commerce
- Firefighting and policing
- Disaster recovery analysis and management
- Research and prevention
- Defense and aerospace monitoring
Benefits of UAVs
UAVs offer a bird’s eye view and 360° panorama into real-time scenarios in order to help engineering teams, planners, surveyors, and an array of other professionals prioritize and plan their approaches. By relaying captured imagery in real time or from a previous timestamp for immediate analysis, drones help teams determine everything from equipment and resource needs to terrain challenges and project timing.
3D, High-Resolution Images
The aerial images UAVs store and transmit are becoming more high-definition and high-resolution by the day, providing a real-world look at site conditions, infrastructure performance, watershed health, landfill compliance, disaster relief, maintenance requirements, and much more. Drone-captured images also capture a wider view and a different perspective than images and observations on the ground.
Data Accuracy and Automation
UAVs gather and send data more quickly than traditional surveying methods, reducing the time surveyors spend on site. Drones also eliminate the potential for human error, thus improving the accuracy of surveying, monitoring, and forecasting. Purdue University has even developed a UAV technology to automatically and instantly detect and report fluctuations in the steel components of nuclear power plants.
As project times decrease, so do associated costs. In fact, UAVs dramatically cut operational and maintenance costs. Leading engineering and surveying firm, McKim & Creed, reported a cost savings of 15%-80% compared to the remote sensing method LiDAR and 30%-75% compared to traditional survey models.
Visibility and Accessibility
The use of UAVs can eliminate any site visibility and accessibility issues caused by natural or artificial barriers, thus mitigating risks to teams on the ground and in the air.
Many facility managers, construction surveyors, land developers, and energy infrastructure operators are deploying UAVs to check inventory and plan maintenance operations in order to minimize human trips and shorten data collection and processing times.
Compared to traditional manned aircraft and satellite sensors, remote sensors mounted to UAVs offer a cost-effective and efficient solution to adapt image characteristics (e.g. scale and resolution) to the size of objects on the ground, monitoring practices, and to changing landscapes.
Because drones are battery operated, they consume little to no fuel, don’t emit toxic fumes, and have minimal environmental impacts. UAVs can also monitor the emissions of engineered infrastructure and systems to lessen their footprints and ensure compliance is met.
Challenges that UAVs Present
Operator Training & Airspace Regulations
The need for drone operators to ensure safe and compliant flight practices per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations is soaring. It also takes a significant amount of time to find and train talented and reliable operators in order to prevent UAV crashes and reduce human and technical errors.
Drone Data Processing
Launching a drone to acquire data is just the first step in the information acquisition process. The UAV-captured images then have to be enhanced, calibrated, processed, stored, and analyzed. As a result, the complexity of drone data processing and evaluation has heightened demand for engineers that can navigate UAV imagery software and cloud-based applications. That’s because these specific technical and software expertise helps to accelerate analytics, forecasting, and prevention.
The challenges of drone data processing have also led to the increased use of cloud-based in-memory computing platforms. The integration of inspection drone data with GE’s Predix platform, which analyzes data from various sources, is one high-profile example.
A lack of uniform standards for UAVs is spawning new challenges for drone manufacturers and engineers. On top of that, the race to develop the most efficient, high-performing, and cost-effective drone is in full swing. With the steep increase in innovation and endless addition of new functions, competition in UAV manufacturing is intensifying.
Some of the key UAV technology advancements and considerations that are gaining traction for drone manufacturers and engineers include battery life extension, data collection accuracy, data processing speed, image resolution, and sensor parameters.
Data sent from drones to the cloud via Wifi or Bluetooth is particularly vulnerable to hackers and cyber threats. Even worse, a bad agent could take advantage of unsecured networks to gain control of a UAV and its data. In order to prevent drone attacks, cybersecurity is becoming increasingly important.
Requirements for UAV Implementation
Before implementing an in-house drone program, there are numerous steps and considerations to take into account other than the compliance regulations and operational documentation that were previously mentioned. Such requirements and considerations include:
- UAV selection and inspection
- Current and pending FAA regulations
- Flight patterns planning and programming
- Photogrammetric site visualization techniques and digital elevation modeling
- Data and image acquisition and analysis software systems
- Drone operator training
- Cybersecurity defense
- Operational documentation including flight operations, emergency/response protocols, training manuals, and progress assessment
Future of Drones in Engineering
As drones continue to evolve and create more and more job opportunities, many engineering students today are being trained in the classroom on how to improve, develop, and operate drones. As such, it’s becoming increasingly vital for engineering graduates in a variety of professions to stay current with the latest UAV technologies and trends. After all, drones are expected to be apart of our daily lives in the coming future. How are you planning to prepare?