Using Drones to Improve Accuracy, Efficiency, and Cost in Land Development

Using Drones to Improve Accuracy, Efficiency, and Cost in Land Development

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming increasingly popular in both the commercial and consumer markets. With the price of these technologically-advanced devices steadily dropping, they are becoming more accessible to the average consumer who is looking to take pictures, bug their neighbors, and get a different view of the world from high in the sky.

For our professional purposes, the use of UAVs leads to endless possibilities within the commercial sector. In addition to the uses within the Wireless Services sector that Brock mentioned, drones are being used in the land development industry to take aerial photos, survey property, perform environmental analyses, and create 3-dimensional maps. 3D mapping has opened the doors for many opportunities, such as quick volumetric grading for earthwork calculations and the ability to easily create quality 3D renderings of proposed developments. Earthwork calculations, which would normally take weeks to complete (and thousands of dollars in land surveying), can now be completed by drones in a much shorter amount of time. These drones take aerial images from a specified height at a defined distance interval, spanning the entire subject area. The geolocated images are then combined using computer programs such as DroneDeploy or Pix4D. Once these programs have created a 3D surface, they can be compared to the proposed/developed surface to get an idea of what the soil cut and fill numbers will be for the site. This calculation is critical in the design process, as large sites on rough terrain can sometimes cost millions of dollars to grade. The ability to get rough grading estimates in such a quick, non-invasive manner is a huge advantage when developing a piece of land.

A large percentage of surveyors have already embraced the usage of drones to improve the accuracy of their site surveys. There are many situations where a site cannot be surveyed in a typical fashion. Maybe the site is inaccessible due to wetlands or contains sensitive material such as ancient burial grounds.

Another great use for drones in field of land development is for conceptual site plans. Too often we find ourselves trying to decipher a pixelated Google Earth map that hasn’t been updated in the last couple of years. This is especially handy when looking at redeveloping sites, since there is often not much original design information available from the seller or local jurisdictions. The two images below are aerial shots taken above the same site. The image on the left is from Google Earth, and the image on the right is from a drone with a 12 MP camera. It is much easier to spot the true current condition of the lot from the drone image, and from that we can get a better understanding of the site and draw a more accurate conceptual site plan.

Aerial images like this are also useful during the construction process to check progress and get a better understanding of the current state of the project. This is not a new idea by any means, but drones make the task much cheaper and realistic. On high-profile projects, such as professional sport stadiums and skyscrapers, companies can spend thousands on aerial photographs taken from expensive helicopter trips. Progress pictures, elevation mapping, and high altitude views are now just the press of a button away, all at a minimal cost for the developer.

In China, drones are being used to build bridges. The Xingkang Bridge, a 4000+ foot suspension bridge which sits roughly 800 feet above a fast-flowing river, is being constructed piece by piece in a large part by drones. Construction workers attach a 2mm diameter cable to the drone which is flown across the span of the bridge. A slightly thicker cable is then attached to the 2mm cable and pulled across the span. They repeat this process with larger and larger cables until the final suspension cable can be pulled across. The bridge’s chief engineer says that using the drone makes the process ‘100 times more efficient’ and saved the project roughly 80% of the cost of laying the cable. The bridge is projected to use over 34,000 cables.

It’s obvious that the list goes on and on when looking at possible uses for drones. They are having an enormous impact on land development projects worldwide and the sky is the limit for what we can accomplish with this low cost/high yield asset.

About Connor Paton

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Connor Paton, EIT, is a Project Analyst for the Land Development – East Division in Peachtree Corners, Georgia. Connor graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering in 2015. He has a background in commercial land development, and has a special interest in real estate investment and construction. .