Today, drones are delivering survey-grade accuracy in a fraction of the time at half the cost of conventional inspections. State transportation agencies are discovering that the return on investment in drone technol- ogy is attractive regardless of state geography and size, from populous states like Ohio and Minnesota to small, rural states like West Virginia. Other common department of transportation uses for drones include traffic monitoring, disaster response, construction progress updates, ice control, snow removal, and inspections of pavement, high-mast light poles, and bridges. When West Virginia’s transportation depart- ment started to consider using drones for some of their work, they had to overcome some objections. “Just three or four years ago, if you were working with photography drones for mapping, you were finding the data to be what we called geographic information system (GIS) at best,” says Travis Long, chief of surveys at West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT). But West Virginia’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was already delivering impressive results with drones and it caught WV- DOT’s attention. “Between 2017 and 2019 things greatly improved with the mapping software,” Travis notes. “The accuracy and the ways to verify the data have become easier.” Since WVDOT launched a proof-of-concept program in 2018, the early skepticism about drones has given way to enthusiasm. The agency reports it is achieving remarkable gains in accuracy, efficiency, cost savings, and safety for one of its most onerous tasks. Here’s how the department of transportation transformed what has always been expensive, accident-prone work—surveying aggregate stockpiles—for the better with drones. Replicating Drone Use Established by the State EPA In many states, the gateway agency for drones is the department of transportation. In West Virginia, the state EPA was the early adopter, turning to drone operations for watershed delineation and reclamation work estimates. To cut the cost of acquiring high-quality GIS data as part of reclama- tion site surveys, West Virginia EPA (WVEPA) started using survey- grade GPS and advanced photogrammetry software to analyze images captured by drones. The high-resolution data on reclamation sites they produced quickly proved the accuracy and value of the drone program. It also created a much more efficient workflow. “We record video showing before and after shots of reclamation sites, and we save a Cutting the Cost and Time for Stockpile Surveys in Half with Drones By Sally Huynh
lot of time going back and forth to sites, because decision-makers can review the drone HD video remotely,” says Mike Sheehan with the Office of Special Reclamation. Getting Buy-In for Drones at the DOT Management at the transportation department was nevertheless wary about the potential risks and liability of using drones. “If someone on a road crew dropped a wrench off a bridge and it busted a windshield on a car below, everybody knows our insurance would pay for that,” ex- plains Travis. “And other than that person’s supervisor and maybe one level higher, no one would hear about it. But if I did the same amount of damage to the same windshield with my drone, the incident’s going to go all the way up the chain to management, and it’s probably going to make the news because it’s a new technology.” With this kind of attention on the program, Travis and his team put a big emphasis on making sure they had the right pilots. It brought up a question many government agencies face early on: whether to hire new or outside drone pilot talent or train in-house experts on how to fly. While both approaches have worked well in other states, the West Virginia leaders wanted to handpick their team. Some had lots of flight hours and some had none. Pilots were paired with experienced sur- veyors and as the program continues to mature, WVDOT is moving toward cross-training surveyors as pilots. The WVDOT drone team also emphasized starting small and not re- inventing the wheel to gain initial approval. “Get through the part that none of us likes to do—the policy and the standard operating proce- dures—and get that done quickly. Borrow from what others have done and make sure you tailor it to what fits your program.” Mitigating Public Misperceptions About Drones “Here in West Virginia, if people don’t know what something is, they tend to shoot it,” says Travis. “One of the frequently asked questions on the state EPA site was, ‘what happens if I shoot this drone down?’” To get ahead of public misconceptions of what they were doing with drones, WVDOT also published a FAQ. Despite this and other public information efforts, “In our first six months, we were hit with a Free- As an early adopter, West Virginia’s Environmental Protection Agency found use for drones in watershed delineation and reclamation work estimates.
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