Maximizing the Potential of Drones

Phantom drone / Wikipedia

Drones can do much more than take pretty aerial pictures. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can be used to analyze site conditions over time, offering a deeper understanding of change. Drones can also play a role in actually planning and designing landscapes.

In a session at the ASLA 2018 Annual Meeting & EXPO in Philadelphia, Christopher Sherwin, ASLA, Surface Design; Brett Milligan, assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at University of California at Davis, Luke Hegeman, ASLA, MODUS Collective; and Emily Schlickman, ASLA, SWA Group explained how they are maximizing the potential of drones to understand climate and ecological change and design and evaluate projects.

Sherwin provided a brief overview of drones. In the early 1900s, the inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a “wireless unmanned aerial system.” In the 1940s, a “crude unmanned drone” was developed. Later in the 1960s, radio-controlled planes became a favorite of hobbyists around the globe. In 1995, the US military unleashed the missile-armed predator drone — a true “leap in technology.” In 2006, the US government devised the first flight guidelines for drone pilots, known as Rule 107. And then a year later, the launch of the iPhone led to the birth of an app-guided drone. And in 2013, the Phantom One drone, featuring sensors linked to GoPro cameras, was released.

To test one of the latest drones with cameras and sensors, Sherwin found a spot at Lundy Lake, just south of Lake Tahoe in California. Sherwin wanted to use the drone to better understand how the tree canopy was shifting with climate change. The drone covered the same flight path a number of times, providing high-quality footage at a 1-meter resolution, which is better than aerial satellites. Sherwin mapped a patch of landscape, including individual tree species and the under story, creating a rich, data-dense photogrammetry. And over time, the photogrammetry was able to show “where change was occurring.”

That is until we was arrested for trespassing and his drone was confiscated. Sherwin had used an app called AVMap, which is supposed to let drone pilots know where it is legal to fly. But the data hadn’t been updated. The result: “my research is on hold. No word yet on a permit.” But he was able to get his drone back. That was the first tip in the session: don’t get arrested.

Brett Milligan, one of the founders of the Dredge Research Collaborative, is using drones to aid the ecological restoration of dunes in the Antioch shoreline, along the San Joaquin River in California. Plants are being grown in the dunes to prevent further erosion. He used drones to monitor the rate of re-colonization by the vegetation, creating a point-cloud or photogrammetry model. He put in a set of “ground control points” — stakes tied with a bright orange material in the dunes — that serve as static reference points in a changing dune landscape. Once he got the video data he was hoping for, he and his students used that to “model results with physical CNC models in wind tunnels,” so as to try to create a more accurate model for how wind impacts dune restoration. Milligan said drones “add new value to field work. The drone draws you in; it doesn’t distance you.”

Brett Milligan using a drone / UC Davis

For Luke Hegeman, a landscape architect and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified UAV pilot, drones are a “design tool.”

Model created with drone footage / MODUS Collaborative

At Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), he created a project called “mixed reality city,” with his own self-built drone. Mixed media goes beyond augmented reality as it includes a true mixing of different realities; the technology enables a real-time relationship between real-world and designed layers. (In a session last year, a number of landscape architects and technologists foresaw this as the future of design).

Hegeman said drones can help create powerful mixed media experiences that help “visualize potential future outcomes.” He envisioned combining drone video feeds with visualized data from network of sensors buried in the ground. Running simulations, vast landscapes could be designed with real-time information.

And Emily Schlickman with SWA Group explained how her firm’s XL Research and Innovation Lab uses drones for a variety of purposes. UAVs have been used to gather information and document conditions before planning and design process have begun. Drones were also used to survey site damage to Buffalo Bayou park in Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped 40 inches of rain in four days. In that case, the drone was crucial, because surveying the site, which was largely inaccessible after the floods, would have been unsafe. And drones have been used by SWA to monitor construction progress.

As part of a Landscape Architecture Foundation (LAF) case study on Hunters Point South park in Queens, New York, conducted with Pennsylvania State University, SWA is analyzing the performance of this resilient waterfront park. Footage from drones taken throughout the day is being stitched together into a “video fly through” that shows “occupation and usage patterns.”

Hunters Point South park / Jonnu Singleton, SWA Group

Algorithms programming machine learning systems track the movement of people through the site. And heat maps show where people congregate throughout the day. “It’s a taste of what this technology is capable of.”

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