Drone inspects New Mexico river dam

Bob Martin Pilot-Reporter KRQE TV

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, NM (KRQE) – No one says the 100-year old Elephant Butte Reservoir Dam is in any danger. But it is the first Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) dam in America to try out drone technology for some of its safety inspections.

“So when there’s new technology out there, we will take our structures within Reclamation, we will apply those under a research type activity, just to see if they can be used in the future,” said Reclamation Assistant Area Manager Ken Rice.

Some in USBR are hoping drones will be able to find cracks and other issues and reduce the need for workers to hang over the sides of dams on long ropes. They also hope drones can reveal new information about the dam by surveying the structure with other sensors like infrared instruments.

The drone buzzing around the Elephant Butte dam this week is a single-rotor small helicopter called the Avenger. Built by Denver-based Geotech subsidiary Leptron, it is packed with a high resolution camera and other sensors that can create an extremely accurate 3-D computer model of the dam.

“It’s got essentially a military-grade GPS sensor in it,” said Geotech CEO Jeff Popiel.

Ultra-high resolution photos can then accurately be stitched onto the computer model to make it extremely realistic.

Dam managers say that if the model is realistic enough and detailed enough, it can improve their ability to monitor the health of the dam safely. Local dam workers and others from around the country help monitor Elephant Butte’s facility year-round.

“They look at the exterior of the dam. They look at the interior of the dam. They look at the gates, the valves, the operators,” said Rice.

Geotech hope the trial this week will prove the technology is up to the task. But, CEO Popiel is also cautious.

“Just like any new technology, currently everybody’s out there running around putting anything you can on a drone right now and then thinking that’s the way to do it,” Popiel said. “But it still has to be better data, safer data, faster data…it has to make sense.”

Rice feels his Reclamation staff has a pretty good handle on the condition of the dam. Though the decades, they have learned what to look for to identify issues.

“We know what this dam does,” said Rice. “We know the characteristics of the dam. So, therefore it helps us to look for anything that is not normal. Maybe a little out of the ordinary.”

USBR experts said it will take more drone flights over the dam at different altitudes and angles and with other sensors to determine whether drones will become one of the tools in their safety toolbox.

Many other industries and agencies such as agriculture, mining, law enforcement, the military and surveying firms have already started using drones to improve efficiency and get additional information.

The Elephant Butte test inspection by drone flights were coordinated by America’s first and largest FAA-approved drone study site, New Mexico State University’s Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Test Center (UAS FTC). Reclamation asked for NMSU’s help in experimenting with drone and sensor technology.

“Is it going to be the ultimate?” asked NMSU FTC manager Dennis Zaklan. “No. What it’s going to do is give them a perspective that the analysts and the engineers have never had before.”

“Every time we’ve used a UAS for a new application, it tended to be fairly focused,” Zaklan said. “What we have found is that as soon as they see the data and start processing it, new ideas come into mind. Different uses for different sensors to get more data. And I think we’re going to see that same thing with Elephant Butte.”

Zaklan said the first one is going to give them a baseline from which to start, and then they can refine it.

October is the official 100-year anniversary of Elephant Butte dam. Lots of special events and even tours of the facility are planned in Truth or Consequences.

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