Local Government Magazine
Technology

The time of the drone is now

Are drones just fun distractions or solid working tools for local authorities? Tararua District Council’s Peter Wimsett told delegates at the recent ALGIM Autumn Conference that drones are not toys: they are now essential business tools that councils must invest in, and he has the experience and data to prove it.

The Tararua District spans an area of 4360 square kilometres, has a road network of 2000 kilometres, including two alternate east-west routes to the SH3 Manawatu Gorge, and over 400 bridges. Peter Wimsett is council’s manager – strategy and district development. At the ALGIM Conference he outlined a wide variety of ways in which local authorities can use drones and the “amazing imagery” they can generate.

These uses include for 3-D modelling, flood plain modelling, engineering designs and surveying. Councils can also employ drones for volumetric analysis, site planning, asset inspections, monitoring coastal erosion, search and rescue work, civil defence and emergency management. Other uses span regulatory inspections (building), spatial planning, and land use and ecological condition analysis, while also creating material for marketing and promotion.

After 10 months’ work on a drones project, Tararua District Council has over 130 gigabytes – or approximately 20 hours – of video data in its library to prove that, yes drones, while perceived as “fun”, are very functional and are being used for multiple purposes.

Peter contends that drones have a place in any council’s day-to-day service to the public. “They can really make our people safe while saving money. It simply makes sense that we think in pictures and better understand things when we are shown images.”

He adds that members of the public, staff, contractors and elected members all ‘get it’ when they see the scale and complexity of something. “But the technology to display and calculate what it means is now amazing, and attainable even for the smallest of councils,” he says. “The business case is now easy. The efficiency and time saving; planning and decision-making; health and safety; and quality of data is clear. The technology has now arrived.”

What’s more, it enables good governance and operational teams to make decisions based on a real-world understanding of what’s happening.

“If I put my governance hat on, I would require footage of important geographic or structural situations,” says Peter. “I would expect the analysis from the tools available to ensure the best decisions are made at all levels of the organisation.

“A picture is worth a thousand words. But it is also just makes sense – to really see what is going on and understand beyond the reports and words.”

Through all this, Tararua District Council is making substantial cost savings, largely by not needing two-person teams to conduct day-long site visits. Only a few minutes are usually necessary to take the footage with under an hour to do the rendering and analysis of models. A direct time saving of 1/8th is not unusual over previous resources required to achieve the same field work results.

It is expensive for staff or contractors to travel out to site to assess a situation but now everyone who needs to know can see the same view. This also better prepares work crews for when they do get out to site.

However, the hidden and largest savings are in communication and planning; the images can be shared and allow everyone to see the scale and extent of problems or situations.

Peter adds, “We can now do things easily that we could never do before. We should not underestimate the value of being able to readily take photos that provide information that was previously not practicably possible to obtain. Even checking the volume of metal stocks is now possible on a monthly basis.”

Background

Tararua District Council previously had access to one drone, and one trained operator, on loan subject to availability. Alternatively, council could outsource to consultants or specialists any work requiring drones – at cost. This gave council minimal functionality and limited results.

As Peter explains, “We preferred to have multiple drones for different conditions, and several staff trained in drone use – setting up contingencies in the event of one person not being available. We also needed people who could analyse the data. We took a position that drones would one day become an essential tool that would be too costly to outsource if we were to saturate deployment across the teams.

“To not have internal capability would inhibit adoption across those teams and reduce innovation. By not building capability, the benefits may not be realised for years. But in 2015, we had to first prove this position to ourselves.”

The planning

In 2016, council employed information systems specialist Tony Krzyzewski (widely known in the sector as “Tony K”) to review the validity of the concept and whether, or not, the project would deliver for council. Council staff sat down and listed all the things that a drone could be used for across council activities.

Council was looking for the “killer app”: the one or two things that would justify a $50,000-plus investment in drones. Bridge inspections nailed it. The savings, benefits and ease of use for this purpose alone would make drones an essential tool for council.

In 2016, council sent five people to an introductory training day at Raglan-based drone manufacturer and specialists, Aeronavics, and undertook market and industry research including attending the national Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Conference.

Council also considered whether government was likely to restrict, or promote, use of drones in New Zealand. The safety of planes and control of airspace is paramount. The then Government in 2016 was very advanced in promoting the drone industry and drone use in a safe manner and respectful of privacy.

“Having satisfied ourselves of these things, we trialled some locally-sourced drones and consultants’ drones, and developed engineering capacity for AutoCAD design and GPS systems,” says Peter.

We then took the project assessment to our chief executive Blair King and got approval to kick start the project.

Project management

Bridges are the “killer app”for drones. Cracks have been identified. Maintenance can now be programmed.

While the business case was built around finding a “killer app” that would justify the cost, other matters considered were:

• The security and legal requirements;

• The benefits of employing a permanent drone operator and how to scale this up; and

• Identifying the level of service, drone capacity and peripheral equipment – such as cameras – required.

The next steps were:

• Management and IT undertook a strategy workshop on the drone project. Eleven council staff and six Downer NZ staff worked on the project planning;

• Funding mechanisms were confirmed, and procurement planning determined;

• Policy and procedure papers, and a job description were developed;

• Four people were trained at Massey University School of Aviation; and

• Council employed one “project specialist” – dubbed “James Bond” by the mayor.

Not just the ‘drone guy’

Tararua District Council created a dedicated role with multi-level responsibilities. Other people would play back-up roles. The ‘drone role’ was not to be the sole purpose of the project specialist’s role. However, as the function and nature of drone work expands, the other functions will be reduced and council plans to scale it as required.

The main purpose of the project specialist’s role is: to manage council’s drone / national Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) activities, both public-facing and internally. This includes developing a public drone policy and working with the public to promote appropriate use of private drones. It also involves providing services to third parties including emergency services and other councils, if asked.

Costs

The initial capital development cost was $52,000, with capital budget set aside for this purpose. The direct operational cost was approximately $55,000 to $60,000 per annum. This enabled three different-sized drones and four cameras to be purchased.

The Kit

The project initially determined that having an upward-looking camera would be essential for bridge inspections. A DJI Matrice drone was purchased for this purpose, having a top platform to attach the gimbal and camera. A DJI Inspire was bought to allow the flexibility of two camera devices being attached from below – including an infrared camera for heat signature detection. A standard DJI Phantom drone was purchased for its portability, quick deployment and low cost.

Drone Target Use

While a target workload of three hours’ flying time a week for the use of drones does not sound like much, a lot of images can be captured in this time. The real gain comes from the use that the information is put to. As Peter notes, “the very first flight took 15 minutes and saved a professional engineer over eight hours work in the field and office analysis”. The functions of the role are being put into practice step-by-step as expertise and procedures are developed, tested and applied.

Success

The value of the role has now been proven:

• It takes about one to two hours to capture the information that two people would achieve in eight hours;

• Half of the capital cost for a small drone was paid for in 15 minutes of fly time;

• Health and safety has been hugely enhanced on planning difficult jobs;

• Great software renders amazing images onto large OLED 4K TVs, and these images can be shared by email or on websites;

• Engineering tools are employed for planning and design; and

• Governance decisions have been made easier by identifying the scale and extent of geological issues.

Drone Uses

So far the drones have been put to the following uses:

• Bridge inspections – Tararua District Council found new cracks in a bridge. That bridge had previously been inspected and assessed as in good condition. One potential reason for the change may be a number of earthquakes since that last inspection;

• Mapping of road washouts;

• Construction site planning and progress updates;

• Assessing land mass movement: especially after heavy rainfall events;

• Researching alternate road routes for climatic events;

• Mapping cemeteries;

• Checking the status of forest blocks;

• Helping iwi identify sites of cultural significance; and

• Conservation planning for river and wetland development – for wastewater consent applications.

During a recent fire event in the Pahiatua area the infra-red camera on a drone was used to help identify hot spots and proved a valuable tool for firefighters.

Similarly, another video showed the Akitio seawall from a perspective that could not be achieved from the road. It clearly demonstrated that the foreshore is very close to being washed away. But it also showed potential areas for long-term managed housing retreat to manage sea level rise and potential alternate routes for a new connector road, should a storm surge destroy the Akitio Esplanade that joins the coastal road network.

A review of the geography for a new access road to a water supply found an infestation of goats in a forest area behind the intake. This highlighted an unexpected need to take steps to better fence off the area and evict the animals.

Council has also recently assisted the local lines company, Scanpower, to test the value of drones for their purpose, by running a light rope across a difficult gully, as a draw line to re-cable an area affected by a storm. A tricky, dangerous repair job was done quickly and with ease.

Route 52: Road wash-out reconstruction. Aerial shot taken by one of Tararua District Council’s drones provide a sense of the scale and complexity of the project.

Future Developments

In the future, drones with robotics attachments will be used to deploy sensors to otherwise-inaccessible areas. Land movements on slip-prone areas could be monitored by internet-of-things sensors, in real time.

Peter believes that, in time, ‘in-the-boot’ drones will be far more common, particularly in the roading and regulatory teams. “These are small readily-deployed drones that literally sit in the boot of our cars ready to deploy,” he said.

“It is now exciting to see the development of drones that can self-manage themselves safely through obstacles and without wireless connection,” he says. “These would be perfect for tight spaces and inside structures or areas that have poor reception. Centimetre-level accuracy is also now available, making road surveys and flood plain modelling possible, on demand.

What’s next?

With the new Long Term Plan adopted, Tararua District Council now has additional funding from July 1, 2018, to invest more capital in drones development and their renewal. Peter notes, “with the experience already attained with our drones, we are now ready to contemplate a ‘big’ drone”.

This is one that allows “semi-all-weather” use in higher wind conditions and better ingress protection (IP) rating for use during or after weather events. Peter says, “there is no point waiting for the next calm day if we need information in, or shortly after, an emergency event. We may need to close a road or keep one open: a drone may provide timely information to make the right decision.”

Other things being considered will be micro-drones for internal building inspections and technology for centimetre-level accuracy for imagery. A camera for RGB [red, green and blue light] readings for water and plant detection would give another useful sensor and data. In 2019/20, robotic deployment systems might be available to investigate along with Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) sensors – if the price is right.

Some challenges

Finally, two questions are still being considered:

The first is, in what situations will the imagery be considered critical information? Council managers and information management staff may want 3D imagery to form part of council-retained records in the future, in which case a library and back-up systems will be important, along with security and accessibility controls and systems.

Secondly, what will happen when councils start using drones to record internal building structures and how much data will that create? Will 3-D imagery of internal structures eventually be deliverable in a LIM? Customers may expect it one day.


• Peter Wimsett is the manager – strategy and district development at Tararua District Council. He says he is happy to talk directly with people from other local authorities about Tararua’s learnings.
06 374 4118. 027 280 7297. peter.wimsett@tararuadc.govt.nz


This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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