For more than 40 years, Scheffer Andrew Ltd. Planners and Engineers have been providing land development and planning services to communities and municipalities in Alberta, Canada.
Good scheduling is vital in Canada’s north-west region. Seasonal and unpredictable weather patterns put even the best-planned projects at risk of delay. The ground is frozen from December to mid-March, so all heavy construction needs to happen between April and November.
During one of those quiet winter spells, Scheffer Andrew’s Ray Penner decided to put his 15 years of model aircraft and helicopter experience to good use by building his own drone program and started to use it as a survey tool. Impressed with how drone technology—in particular GPS and gimbal units—had progressed in recent years, Ray saw the benefits of drone surveying almost immediately, especially in terms of efficiency and safety.
“One of the obvious advantages is the amount of real estate that we can survey in a short amount of time”, said Ray. “We did 130 hectares of mapping yesterday, and we did it in an afternoon, kinda before coffee. Having a survey background, I’ve been on a lot of topo jobs where a survey like that would literally take days”.
“There is the added benefit that once the earthmoving work has been completed, running the topo survey would require the site to shut down for a day. Now it only takes 15 minutes”, said Ray.
Aside from topo surveys, Ray has identified other instances where drone data benefits Scheffer Andrews’ projects. Collection of as-built data, site progression, erosion, maintenance and environmental compliance reporting is augmented by the use of site imagery and data from the Propeller Platform.
“It’s one thing to walk around the jobsite with your camera and taking pictures at the 5ft view,” explains Ray, “But to have pictures from several hundred feet in the air, that’s a whole different level of documentation and credibility. One of the ponds that we are working on required a biologist’s oversight—and it was quite beneficial for us to be able to provide them with several months of imagery”.
According to Ray, Propeller is a vital—and unique—component of his drone program. “Being able to produce centimetre-accurate mapping that’s rivaling GPS topo survey is pretty darn unique and awesome”, he says. “Not only that, it’s where we can fit that into. There’s one job site that we did in Calgary—it was only 250m x 250m but the elevation difference from north to south was almost 5m! The guy that was surveying it even told my engineer to get the drone as he would not be able to complete the work as quickly or thoroughly”
Using the Propeller platform has helped Ray learn how to get accurate models from his UAV. “That I think is where a lot of the magic is going to happen when people wake up and realise what they can do with just their little UAVs”, says Ray. He sees the Propeller platform’s power in generating simple, reliable and tied-in mapping. “I understand that there are people around town here that do a similar style of work, but they’re having a lot of difficulty locking their elevations down.”
While topo surveys stand out to Ray, Propeller is also helping Scheffer Andrew improve their communication, both with co-workers and contractors. “A good one that springs to mind is our local Tourist Information Centre. The data has been used not only to establish the drainage patterns, contours and stuff like that, we also now have information on the building envelope, and our shallow utilities that were located and spray marked are visible in the imagery for reference. We also overlay our engineered drawings onto the imagery outputs we get from the Propeller Platform, so when I’m out in the field and I hand these out, they really enjoy and benefit from being able to quickly orientate themselves to site. The imagery facilitates more fluid communication as now we’re all literally working on the same page with the same reference information.”
Using Propeller has also elevated Scheffer Andrew’s customer communications. When meeting with a customer on site with his boss, after reviewing the Propeller Platform data, “I could sense when he was speaking just how much more authority he had and how he wasn’t overwhelmed with the site because he had already had a lot of time to already look at it”.
Not to be overlooked is the safety benefits of using drones. “When we started the sub-division job we had a 21000m3 stockpile”, says Ray. “When you have 100 individual tandem axle dump truck loads sitting in a stockpile that’s 6m high, it’s a little hard to get an accurate survey. Plus, those guys have to climb up and down it all the time. Especially with some of the other gravel pits we’ve surveyed for them now, it’s taken days off their time, and had huge health and safety benefits of course”.
When comparing software platforms for visualizing their drone data, Scheffer Andrew came to value the consistency in volume measurements delivered by the Propeller. The quality of the visualizations also stood out to Ray. “Consistency is a good thing, but Propeller also elevates the shape of the stockpile so you can see it in three dimensions. And then you know you have a result that you can trust, because you can see it”.
Ray is continuing to innovate and expand his drone program beyond topographical surveying. Scheffer Andrew have started a new program for their sub-division projects where they survey roads at a lower altitude. After providing feedback to Propeller’s developer team that contour lines should to be customizable to the smallest possible intervals, Ray can now identify and rectify any deficiencies in roadway prior to the final acceptance certificate when the subdivision is handed over to the city or public entity.
Ray is also piloting the use of drone data for project planning. The idea is to acquire data before the project starts, so they can use the winter months to analyze it and optimize plans. “What I tell people is ‘you spend a little extra time looking at the model—but when you go to the field, you’re going to be 100% smarter because you already have that overhead image ingrained. It’s a lot easier to make connections’”.