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Drones have come a long way since the days when a single, small remote-controlled copter was sent aloft to inspect something hard to reach. Fleets of drones are being dispatched to collect data and imagery, often enriched with artificial intelligence (AI) programs and actionable analysis from a geographic information system (GIS), to make better sense of the world around us. The devices and analysts on the ground are helping monitor and verify conservation promises, search the rubble of collapsed buildings, and explore other planets.

Now, as the United States embarks on a massive overhaul of its aging infrastructure, there’s perhaps no better tool than these extra sets of mechanical eyes. Businesses that invest in drone technology, whether airborne, underwater, or on land, could prove instrumental as millions of miles of roads, pipelines, bridges, and utilities will need to be inspected before and after significant funding in their rehabilitation. Not only that, but the work will also need to be monitored. Collected data and imagery will keep stakeholders informed, making the infrastructure easier to maintain throughout its life cycle. Imagine 3D digital twins of the country’s infrastructure showing progress on maintenance, construction, and operations.

Fleets of drones would also speed up the process by going where few, if any, humans could physically venture. That’s how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) already sees it. The agency recently sought input on best practices for using aerial drones during structural inspections of the agency’s facilities. It noted that the work typically “requires substantial equipment, such as cranes or hydraulic lifts, and can be physically demanding; poses a safety risk; and can be extremely costly.” The data feeds from these drones help create a 3D digital twin of the airfield that can be used for visualization and analysis of additional critical airport operations, such as identification of obstacles including trees that are penetrating the approach corridor.

As the US is set to spend about $1 trillion on infrastructure fixes and expansions, related private sector drone programs will both require and deliver location intelligence in a safe, less costly way. A key need will be the ability of drones to accurately recognize and record their locations as they navigate and collect data. Drones need to know where they are, where they should go, and where they were when they captured imagery or other information—all aspects where GIS and AI will be critical.

Timing and Technology Are Ripe

While fixes to the country’s infrastructure have been a long time coming, the drone technology that can help has evolved and grown, and so have the regulations governing their use in the United States. An FAA rule change recently allowed small drones to fly at night and above people’s heads. In addition, several companies aiming to deliver packages by drone have been granted exemptions by the FAA to do so, with limitations. Now, the regulatory agency appears to be working on rules to allow drones, without limited waivers, to fly beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot. All those advances ensure more problem-solving uses of the devices in the near future.

Preparing for even more widespread use of drones, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and industry leaders have been working on an unmanned traffic management system—a kind of highway in the sky. The goal is for drones to communicate their locations to other aircraft much like a human pilot would.

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Detroit-based startup Airspace Link has been spearheading those efforts. Leading the mapping and drone-tracking system for the Detroit Region Aerotropolis, the company aims to help make the Motor City a future-proofed hub for flights. The project incorporates drones into the region’s existing transportation plans based on previously developed maps of communities on the ground—identifying structures, hazards, and more.

Working with the FAA, Airspace Link has also created the UAS Data Exchange, making it clearer for drone operators to know where in the US they can and can’t fly, including safeguards for collision avoidance with other drones. The company’s AirHub for Government and companion AirHub for Pilots allow drone operators to plan flights and seek FAA approval within an app. It’s information that’s entirely reliant on location awareness.

Because of modern GIS software, drones know where they are, what’s below, what might get in the way, and what to do if an obstacle sets them off course. The devices are not only aware of their surroundings, but they’re constantly learning about them, too. Drone operators are also finding it easier with GIS-generated maps to plan and manage flights for entire fleets of drones.

Drones at Work

As of late October, there were 865,557 registered aerial drones. Of those, nearly 40 percent are being used for commercial purposes. Many industry leaders are already syncing drone programs to GIS for location intelligence and using it for building information modeling (BIM) to help people understand their surroundings and make better decisions. For instance, drone imagery can provide highly realistic 3D views of construction progress at a job site. A construction manager can access the information in a GIS, overlaying what’s being built versus a design model, allowing quicker fixes to any discrepancies if necessary.

When consultants were helping a land-locked US airport to relocate a runway, they sought an airborne view with drones. Drones not only helped visualize building progress but also, with assistance from imagery processing software in the cloud, measure the volume of fill material arriving by barge as well as view contaminants in the nearby water as a result of the construction.

 Major utilities in the United States have also been deploying automated flights after disasters, including hurricanes, to inspect power plants and lines. A North American railroad used drones amid Hurricane Florence in 2018. Drone pilots followed inspection crews and documented damage from above, along tracks in North Carolina. The images were then transmitted in real time to headquarters so executives could weigh risks and determine where to devote resources.

At the site of the recent catastrophic Surfside condo collapse, Florida State University’s Disaster Incident Response Team worked day and night with image and thermal-sensing equipped drones. They captured precise images from above, beamed spotlights for rescue crews, and helped firefighters locate the best positions for water drops when fires started in the rubble. Every two to four hours, aerial drones collected imagery used to create maps and measure the damage to help emergency crews gain better intelligence to make decisions.

Drones helped make the mission of NASA’s Perseverance rover possible. On its own, it knew where—within five mere meters—to land on the surface of Mars. NASA scientists, using satellite imagery, helped it to learn where there were likely to be large rocks, high hills, deep sandpits—and ideal landing zones in between hazards. Even now, the rover is reciprocating, continuously delivering valuable information about the planet’s surface.

Drones—whether traversing a distant planet, monitoring the construction of an airport runway, or helping emergency responders comb through disaster sites—have proven that their utility extends far beyond simple observation, especially when paired with GIS software to process its captured imagery for mapping and analytics, supporting faster and better decision-making.

The technology carries significant potential for helping the United States tackle such a massive undertaking to get its infrastructure in order. Businesses that invest in location-intelligent drones are likely to be key stakeholders in this trillion-dollar rebuilding project.

To learn more about how drones and GIS can be crucial tools for rebuilding America’s infrastructure and more, visit esri.com/about/newsroom/podcast/drone-delivery-is-coming-heres-how-its-going-to-happen/