GIS Mapping technologies are reducing project costs...but that's only the beginning.

Electrical Lines GIS Mapping drones for infrastructure
Photo by Marcus / Unsplash

We’ve made incredible strides in technology in just the last 20 years; but, despite those advances, we’re still facing huge gaps in the development of infrastructure for the modern age. Even the most recent infrastructure plan from the White House, a $1.5 trillion investment in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, leaves out improvements in the electrical grid.

The plan paints a picture of the costs involved with inspecting and updating critical infrastructure elements. For example, the U.S. electrical grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth, comprising 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines, linking thousands of generating plants to factories, homes, and businesses.

In one report from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the department estimated that improving the U.S. electrical infrastructure to a full-scale smart grid by 2030 could reduce annual carbon emissions from the electric power sector by some 442 million metric tons, about 12 percent, equivalent to the output from 66 average coal-fired power plants.

The reduction of emissions would stem from linking a "smarter" smart grid to renewable power sources while improving aging elements of the existing grid. But, that enhancement comes at a significant cost:

In addition to ground inspection costs, aerial inspection of lines using manned aircraft can cost upwards of $2,000 per hour.

Thankfully, new drone technology and GIS mapping are changing the way those inspections take place and dramatically reducing costs.

Beyond Electrical – How Drone Mapping is Changing Industries

A leading benefit of drone mapping for inspection is the reduced cost. Where manned aircraft cost thousands of dollars per hour, drones can cost just a few hundred. In addition, the GIS mapping software and linked systems are capable of capturing far more data.

This brings a distinct advantage for the industrial sector, where accurate inspections are critical.

Photogrammetry and GIS mapping, for example, can help create more detailed maps of rooftops, structures, and infrastructure elements. Additional sensors, like RGB and IR sensors, can help locate leaks or insulation issues.

That includes leaks and faults within underground or concealed gas lines.

Another example is the use of drone mapping to inspect solar farms with infrared imagery to locate trouble spots in the solar panels. Thanks to the varied software applications, cameras, and sensors, drones are changing the ways that data is gathered - and maps are created - across numerous industries.


Aerial mining drone

Detailed maps and data are maintained in the mining industry using drones. Companies utilize frequently updated maps to track and analyze stockpiles, drainage, and erosion in mining areas (including early detection), and for pit and dump management.

The greatest benefit to the mining sector is the situational awareness gained from data – a benefit that could be applied to any telephone, any data, and any electrical line inspection and maintenance. Staying on top of even remote shifts in landscape, for example, can be invaluable in detecting potential issues and predictive maintenance.

Real Estate & Land Surveying

Drone mapping is commonly used in residential and commercial real estate to aid in the sale of land, especially for larger properties. Traditional satellite imagery lacks significant detail, but drone mapping provides high-resolution visuals without requiring in-person visual inspections on the ground.

For energy and utility organizations, this kind of detail can reduce the cost and time involved in surveying land for expansion and development.

When photogrammetry can produce detailed 3-D maps, it becomes even easier for energy and utility companies to expedite workflows and execute expansion and development plans.

Land Management – Forestry and Flora Monitoring

drone imaging agriculture

Forestry requires a vigilant eye and extensive monitoring that used to require significant resources to manage. It was difficult to track things like illegal logging, or to make accurate tree counts for resource monitoring. When it came to monitoring tree health, or maintaining a watchful eye on dry vegetation in relation to weather conditions (to control fires), it was a manual process that relied on inadequate eyes on the ground – or costly eyes in the air.

Drone mapping and extensive data gathering (like info gathered from NVDI imagery) makes all of those things trackable at a fraction of the cost, time, and resources.

The same benefit applies to energy and infrastructure in monitoring facilities, structures, towers, and lines for vandalism, environmental changes, and even natural conditions (damaged trees, swelling or changing water sources) that could pose a threat to infrastructure.

GIS Drone Survey – Data-Driven Efficiency and Benefits

While drone technology has its advantages, the drone itself is simply a vehicle. It’s the software, the cameras, and the ability to gather data that allow for data-driven decisions to improve infrastructure, identify issues, and mitigate risk.

Here are key areas where GIS drone survey and drone tech most benefit the energy and utility sector:

Asset Inspection – With pre-planned flight paths and designated areas to map, monitor, and review, a drone can monitor the most critical assets of any infrastructure including towers, wind farms, flare stacks, substations, and specific segments of line.

Emergency Response – Detailed inspection can be done quickly during an incident, using GIS mapping to assess a specific asset or structure for a close visual assessment before workers are involved. This can identify potential safety issues that may put workers at risk, while also providing crisis management teams and engineers with the data they need to make the most appropriate response.

Predictive and Preventative Maintenance – Routine drone mapping can go beyond general asset inspection with the level of detail and types of imagery that can be captured. For example, drone mapping allows for close, detailed inspection of transmission and distribution lines for signs of corrosion, wear, sagging wires, fractured or broken insulators, structural changes in towers, etc.

Planning and Development – With infrastructure upgrades and expansion, there’s always someone steering the approvals. Drone mapping provides the level of detail required for creation of interactive visual simulations and 3-D models, such as transmission tower height and corridor analysis. Rather than raw data, visuals can improve stakeholder engagement - resulting in much-needed approvals.

Region-Specific Assessment – Some terrain requires more in-depth analysis than a flyover or satellite imagery can provide. For example, coastal regions have expansive ecosystems like mangroves, dunes, reef systems, waterways, and local habitats. GIS mapping can gather and generate a wealth of data in record time for monitoring coastal conditions around sites and assessing landforms as needed.

Site Monitoring for Enhanced Communication – With weekly monitoring, you can reduce time spent walking asset sites while flagging areas of concern on the map to direct inspection. Likewise, regular mapping creates a visual record of site progress to aid communication between project managers and engineers who need to explore trends. Most importantly, when sites are under development, you can overlay site plans over high-res imagery captured in real time to minimize downtime and expedite decisions on the ground.

Sensor and Camera Variations – Drone tech can capture and instantly send a wealth of information in real time thanks to the variety of sensors and cameras, such as near-infrared (NIR), multispectral, thermal, and RGB (traditional images). In addition, a drone’s ability to lock in and hover or move in close to any asset, at virtually any elevation, provides the cleanest and most detailed imagery possible (including a 360-degree view) in real time.

While most mapping is done using regular RGB visual sensors, advancements in drone sensor technology have brought us incredible new imagery at affordable prices, including high-definition video, 3-band & 5-band, LIDAR, real-time thermal mapping, and hyperspectral imagery.

Looking Forward – GIS Drone Mapping and Big Data

The '70s saw the birth of computer mapping, making the once-onerous process of hand-drawing maps a thing of the past. In the '80s, we saw the introduction of the spatial database and a drive toward focusing on the data around maps, along with more universal organization of that data. Through the '90s, as computer technology advanced rapidly, we gained the ability to process and view multi-layer maps, allowing for visualization of multiple data sets at once - the precursor to our current systems.

Today, the pace of growth is only increasing. The wealth of data is expanding exponentially thanks to interconnected systems not only within the U.S., but on a global level.

As infrastructure grows and evolves, especially under new governmental improvement plans, organizations will likely struggle to keep up if they continue to use dated efforts for gathering and processing data.

We’ve moved into the age of big data, and manually gathering and analyzing data at scale is becoming increasingly difficult. In many cases, the time required for the team to compile data from a manual flyover, pull historical data, and compare it with other records causes a significant delay in workflow next steps.

Drone technology is reshaping the infrastructure and setting the pace for growth and development. When unmanned GIS mapping can occur without the need to pause a worksite, and that raw (and visual) data is instantly transferred, then your teams can immediately stack it against aggregate data to analyze results on the fly.

drone flying sunset