Drones Making a Difference in Development, Disasters, Preservation and More
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 24, 2022)
Oakland County, MI – Whether it’s a small town village or a big city, there are folks whose job it is to understand what land there is, how best to use it, how to deal with problems that happen in developing it or after. Those people are called planners. And planners get to play with drones.
Drones have many applications that most people, and even other planners, may not realize. And of course it’s not really playing, because so much practical work is being done with this ever-evolving technology.
On August 24 Oakland County hosted a Planner’s Gathering where officials, administrators, and planners from across the county gathered virtually to learn from experts about what drones can do.
Robert Fraus of Nowak and Fraus Engineers works with planners across the region. One part of their job is to do surveying on sites for potential new development or changes to properties. In the past professionals would have boots on the ground doing mapping of typography and features. Yet from the air, the data is even more accurate. And it’s gathered more quickly.
He showed the example of the Detroit Yacht Club, where his team used an ortho-moasic image which combines multiple images overlapping in a seamless way to provide an aerial image that is accurate to less than one inch. Control points help ensure the accuracy. In this case it took 15 minutes for the actual drone flight, with the high tech tool buzzing back and forth in the sky like a scanner over the area. It took another 20 minutes to program in the control points that added that extra layer of accuracy.
“We were able to collect the field data in under an hour, when a normal field crew would take two the tree days to do the work,” Fraus said.
Drones work especially well in areas where foot access is difficult. “Surveying in the woods is not easy,” said Tyler McMillin of NOAR Technologies based in Clawson “In an area with lots of woods, you can remove trees [from the images] to see the ground surface.” In one project they were able to accurately map 1,200 acres in just six hours.
Smaller projects can be aided by drone use as well. Fraus’ team was called in to help a client in Pontiac who had to clear a giant pile of dirt from a property. He wanted to know how many trucks it would take. One simple drone flight over the pile, and the client was able to do better than just a guess – saving time, money, and hassle in the long run.
Drone footage is also helpful for documenting the progress of projects. McMillin said drone footage can “capture site conditions,” showing before and after pictures which can be helpful if there are disputes about the project, damages to property etc. They’re useful also, of course, in showing off progress.
SEEING THE DETAILS
Oakland County Historian Ron Campbell is involved in many historic preservation efforts in the communities he serves. And drones are definitely Campbell’s friend. One clear example he shared was of the Pontiac State Bank Building, a skyscraper built in 1929, which happened to have its grand opening on the eve of the historic stock market crash.
The building has historic designation, and the owner of the building is required to do a report annually on any damages or changes. Campbell was part of this process, though until the use of drones, the reports were made by people standing on the ground and looking up, from the roof looking down, and visiting different floors to see what could be seen by looking out the windows.
Like many buildings in the 1920s, architectural details were part of the pride of design. The Pontiac State Bank Building is known for the large image of Chief Pontiac on the front. But there are also smaller design features that can be worn away by weather or otherwise damaged.
One slide showed a column by the main door way, and how over the years it got chipped and worn away, and is now no longer existent. “Some preventative maintenance could have prevented that,” Campbell said.
With drones they can now see every detail. For example, “we can see the base of the feet, and look at them from different angles,” he said.
Not only does it help with tracking damage, but the images give close up views of the artistry of the building, and beautiful images that the city and the property owner can be proud of.
This summer a major fire impacted several buildings in historic Downtown Holly, including the Holly Hotel, Andy’s Place, and Arcade Antiques. Over a dozen fire departments responded to attack the blaze and prevent it from spreading, and a drone on the scene helped show firefighters where to target their efforts.
But even after the smoke had cleared, drones have been a priceless tool for those helping with the cleanup and restoration efforts. The Village of Holly worked with Oakland County, using drones to assess the damage, with details so clear that it surprised those who had no idea how accurate drone cameras could be.
“We couldn’t get into the building,” Campbell said. “We were really able to use these images… We can zoom in right to see down to each brick that’s on the ground, each board.” The images helped prevent potential injuries from people going into the damaged buildings, and gave accurate images for insurance companies and restoration professionals.
DISCOVERY IN IRELAND
Another interesting use of drones came up recently in the media, which Campbell included in his presentation. He showed pictures from Ireland where someone using a drone over farmlands impacted by drought caught images of what used to be the base of a henge – a circle made by people long ago out of rocks or timber, that left its mark in the quality of the soil where the timber had rotted away. It wasn’t visible in healthy growth years, and even in the drought the difference in color of the crops was not obvious. But from the air, the areas where the timber had been were slightly greener, because they were healthier.
This, Campbell said, is an example of how drones can continue to surprise people with new benefits and discoveries.