Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Sep-Oct 2017 issue

The Bird’s-Eye Advantage of Using Drones

By Renee McGivern

If a drone were a bird, it’d be a red-tailed hawk. One minute, it’s circling from 200 feet above us and surveying the land, and the next, it’s diving down toward its target. What a marvelous set of eyes from which to view our world.

A drone's view of Champlin's Mill Pond shoreline.Engineering consulting firms in Minnesota are adding drones to their bag of tools to provide elected officials and the public a clear-eyed view of communities with better facts, images, and video.

For less time and money than aerial photography or satellites, drones can provide very accurate data and visuals about places and projects, which improves design-making and public buy-in.

Getting data from high places
If you’ve visited the City of Red Wing, then you’ve spotted Barn Bluff, a landmark and park east of Main Street and high above the train tracks and Mississippi River. The city has a master plan to improve hiking and address erosion on the bluff.

“We flew Barn Bluff with a drone and acquired detailed data that will help us identify areas of erosion and changes since the statewide LiDAR [radar using pulsed light] data was last collected in 2011,” says Nick Meyers, a GIS project manager for Mankato-based Bolton & Menk. “The imagery has a very high resolution and can be used to help the city make informed decisions on how and where to make trail improvements with respect to erosion potential, cultural resources, and public safety concerns.”

Capturing, processing, and interpreting the information from a drone can happen within days instead of months.

“Normally, this data would be difficult and expensive [to obtain] with traditional satellite or aerial methods. Those involve the use of expensive LiDAR or satellite sensors and coordinating planes with limited times for deployment,” Meyers says.

Increasing safety
A drone hovers high in the sky. Companies using drones agree that they’re much safer than walking the edge of a bluff or pond, or through rocky terrain.

Aggregate companies use drones to measure stockpiles of aggregates because that’s safer and faster than having people climb on the piles to determine how many aggregates were removed for construction projects.

“Drones provide more details of our mines and borders,” says Tony Tomashek, vice president of Mathy Construction/Milestone Materials, which operates aggregate mines in southeastern Minnesota. “We can use them in combination with aerial photography to prepare a proposal or [conditional use permit] for cities and counties.”

Perfect for water projects
What about all the lakes, rivers, ponds, and wetlands that Minnesota cities manage? Drones greatly improve a city’s ability to track the quality and condition of water, aquatic species, shorelines, and nearby land.

WSB & Associates, a Minneapolis-based engineering firm, is working with the City of Champlin on an aquatic habitat enhancement and dredge project for Mill Pond, a popular 34-acre fishing destination.

WSB flew a drone around the Mill Pond shoreline and collected pictures and video that were used in a meeting with city officials, residents, stakeholders, and the permitting agency.

“The images helped everyone understand the current shoreline condition around the pond from a birds-eye view,” says Bill Alms, water resources project engineer with WSB. “Many of these locations were difficult to access, which is where the drone provided a unique advantage.”

Images from drones help officials make better decisions.One of the most common uses for drones is for taking images before, during, and after construction projects like street reconstructions, park improvements, or stormwater treatment system upgrades.

“Our communities are routinely investing millions of dollars into infrastructure,” says Alms. “Drones are capable of providing unique vantage points which can promote public interest in projects, and increase their overall understanding and satisfaction.”

Renee McGivern is communications strategist with Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota (www.armofmn.com). Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota is a member of the LMC Business Leadership Council (www.lmc.org/sponsors).

Read the Sep-Oct 2017 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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