Drones have flown out of the sci-fi movies and war zones into American business, and the area’s largest engineering firms are putting them to use in risky and forbidding settings.
On Wednesday, Burns & McDonnell showed off a DJI Inspire 1, one of the growing fleet of drones that it uses to scout project sites and to inspect and monitor infrastructure during and after construction.
The demonstration also included aerial photos from a big power line project recently completed by Burns & McDonnell, the first engineering firm in the area to get U.S. and Canadian approval for commercial drone use.
Steven Santovasi, the firm’s manager of geospatial services, said the firm used drones — also referred to as UAVs, for unmanned aerial vehicles — “when installing more than 200 miles of transmission lines in Canada through extremely rugged terrain and brutally cold temperatures.”
“In the past, engineers would have to physically walk the route to gather those precise measurements and data,” Santovasi said. “Using UAVs allowed us to do our job safer, more efficiently and significantly faster, saving our client time and money.”
Though Burns & McDonnell, the area’s second largest engineering firm, is in the vanguard in its field, drone use is growing in many parts of the economy.
The Federal Aviation Administration has approved 1,782 applications for commercial drone use — 56 of them just this month — ranging from online retail giant Amazon.com to an area startup, the Kansas City Drone Co. Aerial photography companies dominate the FAA list, but “smart farming” agricultural applications also are plentiful. Black & Veatch, the area’s largest engineering company, also has started to use drones for inspections.
At Burns & McDonnell’s demonstration Wednesday, a drone lifted off with a low whir from the top of the firm’s new parking garage and, before returning, hovered over construction of the company’s headquarters expansion north of Bannister Road and east of Ward Parkway.
Santovasi said drones could provide higher-resolution photos and video than satellite or other aerial sources, and at about one-fourth the cost. In addition, he said, drones can be equipped with sensors to collect data to identify such things as vegetation health, wetland areas and surface temperatures.
As one example for saving time and money, Santovasi said a maintenance inspection of a structure inside a wetland could be done by drone in a few minutes. But for people to do that, Burns & McDonnell might need months to get permits, build a road in and restore the site after leaving.
Burns & McDonnell is adding to its drone fleet and adding staff to operate it, Santovasi said, as well as adding drone services at its offices in Houston, Connecticut, Southern California, Denver and Minneapolis.
Across town at Black & Veatch, engineers started by using drones to inspect cellphone towers. Its pilotless pilot program in that field substantially cut costs and risks and was selected as one of Information Week magazine’s “20 Great Ideas for 2015” earlier this year.
Brad Hardin, the firm’s global chief technology officer, said the drones’ advantages in cell tower inspections had quickly become apparent.
“A traditional inspection can take a crew of at least two, and three hours to climb up and three hours to climb down,” he said. “And that’s not counting time to take photos and video.”
Drones also can get better-quality images, he said.
Those inspection advantages sparked other ideas for drone use, he said, from calculating ore stockpiles at mining sites to quickly and safely inspecting dams and giant arrays of solar cells.
And when it comes to checking progress at a huge project site, “there’s almost no way to do that besides aerial images,” Hardin said. “With drones we can check weekly, and more affordably.”