UAV Podcast Series: How do you make it work? Exploring Practical Workflows and Equipment

July 25, 2018
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Bill McNeil our small UAV contributing editor is hosting our quarterly podcast. After a word from our sponsor, Esri, Bill has a chat with Cody Thomas and Michael Lambert on how they handle drone data and manage a successful workflow in their work with agriculture and construction.

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Bill McNeil: Many of our readers are familiar with the benefits of using drone required data but some of them don't understand the step by step process that you go through to collect, analyze, and use the data. With that in mind, Cody Thomas of Highroglyph and Michael Lambert of Chasco Constructors have agreed to share with us their experience flying drones, collecting data, and using data in their respecting businesses. So, let’s start off by providing our readers with a little background information on yourselves.

Cody Thomas: My name's Cody Thomas. I am the founder of Highroglyph here in northern California. I’m located actually in the middle of rice country. We are sixty miles north of Sacramento. My background’s in agriculture and I have a bachelor's degree in Natural Resources Management which took me overseas to Australia for a bit. That company I was working for over in Australia was involved in drones at the same time as I had an interest. I came back home and started flying drones in agriculture and looking for anomalies and crops

Michael Lambert: Great to be here. My name is Michael Lambert. I’m the VDC, or virtual design and construction manager for Chasco Constructors we are in Round Rock, Texas, which is about twenty minutes north of Austin. My background is actually in computer-aided design, AutoCAD - those types of software, and also land surveying. I was brought on to create an in-house survey program fifteen years ago, and since then it's been about searching for solutions for the business workflow, how to get better data through that stream. Also, just looking into new technologies is what I have been charged with that since the beginning, just because of my other backgrounds recreationally. Right now, we're very young into drones. I think that we've got a lot of experience that trended towards the drones that have helped us out a lot with our program, but really, just right now, we're learning like everyone else.

Can you give us some specific applications? What are you using drone data for and how are you applying that to your specific work?

Michael Lambert: So, the way that we're using the drone is thinking of it as a traditional surveyor. That's the base that we've created as our return on investment, survey labor. I think that's probably the lowest hanging fruit. Besides the labor, you've also got safety concerns. So, you've got guys tromping around fifty acres of brush with snakes, hogs, and those kinds of things that we have down here in Texas. The initial investment was to alleviate some survey labor time, but also to track materials such a stockpile that you see on the construction site, and then make that information available to everyone across the enterprise. So, starting with that was an immediate return on investment. It paid for all our solutions three times over. But now, as we've gotten a little further into it, we're finding other departments and other work flows that benefit from it. So, we've started to do pre-bid surveys so if we have the information that we need and the time to do it. We can go out to a site that we're bidding on and observe existent conditions compare topography against what we were given at the time of the bid, and they give us a much better insight of what we're getting into. We really started off up with this kind of the trifecta of the group is as-built. When the construction process is done, we can go out and do an as-built survey like we would traditionally do with a surveyor. It's very time consuming. Honestly, the data that you get from that is pretty limited, whereas when you do it with the drone, you are seeing the entire site.

Cody Thomas: I currently have a couple Matrice M100s that I use. And attached to each of them is a SlantRange 3P multi-spectral. What we're learning is that this is truly getting to the definition of efficiency for pest control advisers, agronomists, agribusinesses, and the growers themselves. To be able to fly an entire field or orchard in a day of flights and have everything quantified in the palm of your hand. Being able to zoom in and zoom out being able to take readings on certain areas or certain areas in question is a great advantage to understand what is currently going on with your crop no matter what. Being able to go out to those areas, have a look and ground truth it and measure certain things over time. So, this comes in very handy with organic crops.

With the SlantRange 3P, I’m able to fly over certain fields, get a reflected signature of particular weeds, and this software will help me map out every weed in a specific area that have flown over. It's getting truly amazing as far as how the tech is evolving over time and as far as using treatments and test plots in ag. This is great to be able to measure variances of certain applicants and inputs on the crops. It's a very exciting time. The tech is improving rapidly, so every six months or so i feel like the tech is getting outdated. You've got to continue to upgrade software or hardware and being able to share this type of information with the growers to get a better idea of what is happening, any anomalies, and being able to improve any managerial decisions is what it's really about.

What type of hardware, drones, and on-board instruments are you currently using?

Cody Thomas: Yeah. It's the SlantRange 3P multi-spectral, that is a four-band multi-spectral sensor. That has four filters on it, so you're seeing wavelengths basically beyond what the human eye can see. And you're getting information that may not take effect on a plan until two weeks out if you are laying outputs out there on the crop. You're getting insight on how the plants are responding basically before the human eye can quantify what exactly is going on.

Michael Lambert: We are currently using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro, and that does the majority of our mapping. We also have a Yuneec H520. It's a hexacopter, and it has the hot swappable payload. The camera on it, that I used the most, is the e90 and its specifications are almost identical to the camera that's on the Phantom 4 Pro, a little bit different zoom rate, but very comparable at that point. And then you can also get what they call the CGO-et which is a thermal camera. We've been doing a little bit of testing with that and haven't really used it practically. We see some advantages, particularly on vertical structure, structural concrete, you know, checking buildings for their gaps water leagues and things of that nature.

What kind of software do you use?

Michael Lambert: We use DroneDeploy for all our flight planning and processing. We use a product called Carlson Precision 3D topo, designed early days  to be an editing platform. Since then they've been adapting it to better handle drone data, so we take the point cloud directly exported from DroneDeploy bringing it into Carlson Precision 3D, create a DTM from it, export services that then go into our civil engineering software. It’s a seamless flow of uploading for those running it through the 3D topo and then bring it into the engineering software to integrate it with all the other design information.

You go out to the field. You fly your drones. You collect these data, and then process them through a number of different third-party applications, is that correct?

Michael Lambert: Yeah. So, first and foremost, you have to point out that planning is probably the most important aspect of this whole process, and in construction in particular, because job sites are so unique. The process starts using the construction plans to figure out the scope of the job, the limits of the construction. Then, once we have that defined, we use Google Earth street view and Airmap to do remote site analysis for obstructions. The flight pattern direction can be determined by a number of factors on the ground. Airmap gives you all the FAA data that’s required.

Once you have that plan together, then you go to the site. You do manual safety inspection where you put the drone up in the air, look around you look for those obstructions, height of objects and adjust your flight plan accordingly. Flying is obviously the part the drone does it does what i tell it to do. Take the photos that you collected and upload them to DroneDeploy. They do all the processing and you’re receiving email notification saying, “Hey, your map’s done.” Then at that point, you could go in and start doing some analysis that gets some annotation tools, measurement tools, the volumetrics, things of that nature… that we can do on the site. You also have the capability to export any number of twenty different file formats depending on the operation that you want to do. Export those files, bring them into the third-party software. I mentioned you know the Carlson Precision 3D. We actually use Carlson Civil instead of AutoCAD Civil because of that integration. Carlson is really designed as a survey/engineering program. That piece of integration between those two pieces is seamless. And that's the only other thing that we used besides DroneDeploy.

Cody Thomas: So, let me dive into this. My workflow has some similarities. I’m in rural areas, but in some of these areas it butts up to some urban spots, so you've got to really take note of the location of maybe the field or the orchard in question. Look for the obstacles that are in your operating area, check the air spaces and of course those are the first things you do, really doing your due diligence on the location where you're going to be doing your missions. As far as my hardware and software, I have a couple of Matrice M100s. I also have a Phantom 4 Pro and that is a very handy tool. It has specific uses well.

SlantRange is unique in that it requires less overlap than some of the other competitors’ sensors out there, which means I get less data. With a SlantRange it comes with its own processing software, so there's no uploading to the cloud and waiting maybe10-12 plus hours, depending on the data set, to process. I don't need any internet at all, so I’m usually out in the field or in the orchard. I will get the data with a Matrice with the SlantRange all landed, and I’ll upload the images into my laptop, which i usually have out there with me. It takes, depending on the size of the data set, maybe 20 to 45 minutes. Sometimes I will have thousands and thousands of images. With my powerful laptop here - it cranks it out quickly. On the spot, I can take an assessment with the grower or the PCA out there with me and we can head out (after we look at the data) and see what's what. You cannot tell 100% what a possible issue might be just by looking at the data. Basically, the next step is ground truth, take an assessment and maybe some further testing needs to be done, like soil samples. I usually map a couple thousand acres a week for a couple different clients. With the Phantom 4 Pro, I’m able to also add some additional information. I'll do overflights, either in video or sometimes oblique photos to get a clear visual assessment of what it is that we're looking at to really complement the imagery within the slant view multispectral information.

Crops, depending on the crop, have their own basically insights you want to get. The insights you want to get for rice is going to be different than what you want to get for let's say grapes. Now a lot of users using drones and agriculture want to look for stress, now stress can be a broad term. Stress means that could mean a whole lot of different things depending on the crops. Stress and rice might be bad whereas stress and grapes might be good, where you kind of stress those on purpose in many instances. Now taking a visual assessment with the Phantom 4 Pro is also good. Let me be clear first is that a lot of growers and pest control advisors - they know what's going on in the fields. You're not going to tell them anything new or anything mind blowing right off the bat. The real ROI is to take the information that they already have and get some quantitative information on the map and put everything in the palm of your hands. Usually I’ll get a call to come out or I know a grower that has certain issues and they're going to do further testing in some areas. So, the ROI is, let's measure the effectiveness of your decisions and your inputs. And on top of that moving away from inputs with weed mapping. With this type of tech, I can fly right on top of either trees or plants like rice and I can get the spectral signature of the weeds in certain area and with this software can create weed pressure maps. I can upload those to spray rigs whether it's ground-based or aerial-based on helicopters. We’re working on something like that with some helicopter guys here in northern California to be able to go spot treat certain areas in rice fields to be able to save growers money by not having to go out and lay inputs maybe everywhere or in large areas. We can really narrow that down and lay those inputs where they are needed. So, we're seeing excellent value in that right now. The Phantom 4 Pro, to go back to that, that's a great tool and to be able to do that visual information, whether it is a video or photo really complements the imagery. So, this is truly the definition of efficiency -  putting everything together and having information that day of the flight is remarkable. The tech has gone a long way in agriculture. It's exciting times.

Cody, how long have you been doing this?

I first got into drones back in 2014, whenever the earliest version of the Phantom, the DJI Phantom came out and I strapped one of the old Go Pros to it and was flying over some fields. I thought, “wow, this is pretty cool!” I have an old video file from that. I looked at it just a few weeks ago. I'm was thinking that it looks pretty horrible comparing that to what we have now. It's night and day. It's come a long way. I also forgot to mention that I have a Zenmuse XT thermal camera as well that I throw on the other Matrice so i can take some thermal readings. I’ve got some nifty tricks up my sleeve and they all have a purpose. So, the past four years or so I’ve been really having some sort of hopefully positive fact here in the north state and continue to keep it going.

Michael, how long have you been using drones and drone data ?

So, we started investigating and we're on the monthly plan of DroneDeploy about two years ago and have been in a full-blown program for a little over a year now.

To kind of wrap things up, can you give us some idea of how some of these jobs were performed before drones were being used,  and i think we've touched on it a couple times, but it seems like there's a significant upside using drones.

Michael Lambert: yeah so you know i said it beginning the survey labor was the number one of the initial benefits. Going from there, it's all about the data. Anybody that's flying drones is flying to get data. Then it's trying to figure out where that data fit in the organization. Now it's involving the construction process.

Before you had to do all kinds of manually intensive special projects to get specific types of data. Whereas with the drone, you can do that in one flight. Whether or not to use it is up to the project management team itself, but you don't have to make extra trips with surveyors. You don't have to go out with video cameras, special sensors and things of that nature. It's kind of one and done with the drone. Because of the rapid pace that it can collect data, you can do it more often. I'm starting to see the ability to provide ownership and developers and municipalities the information that they've never had before. I'll tell you that's probably one of the most exciting things about the drone program. As we initially used it with one of those new partners, they are into it immediately and then they asked for it. Then when they ask for it, we can budget it. So being able to get data, a lot of data, much more quickly and spread that data to more people that are associated with the job is a big thing for us and it's only going to skyrocket from there.

Cody, is it about the same scenario for you?

Cody Thomas: Well the traditional way in agriculture were basically ground assessments. Agronomist or the growers as control advisors took visual assessments from the ground or drove around an orchard or field. That left room for error of course and, to tailor in with that traditional way, a number of years ago (couple decades ago) they started really incorporating some information from satellite imagery and then manned aircraft. Now those are not going to compare to drones. It's not obviously as clear resolution with satellites. You're looking at meter, a meter plus per pixel with manned aircraft, a little lesson that. With drones you can get down to, I'm sure Michael has experienced with this, centimeter accuracy. I could only imagine the volumetric information he's getting and the tools he’s using this really neat. And same thing with the agriculture, to get right on top of a crop whether it's trees or on a vine or out in the field like alfalfa or rice, again it's truly remarkable stuff. Mike's right. It's about the data. The drones, that's the platform - that’s secondary. It's really the data. It's getting that detailed information to make a decision. That's what it's about, to save the client, really tailoring everything for the clients, in my case. Once again, comparing that with satellite it's night and day. This is really good stuff to be able to strap a multispectral on a drone and get information beyond what the human eye can interpret from ground-based stuff. It's really good stuff.

Bill McNeil: Well, this is great information from both of you. Barbaree, is there anything else that we want to cover while we've got these gentlemen on the phone?

Barbaree Duke: Perhaps we can talk a little bit about lessons learned or gotchas that you'd like to share with folks.

Cody Thomas: Yeah sure, maybe a funny story. I’ve flown in many different areas in rural northern California. A few weeks ago, I was flying over some rice ground, and I had a large flock of ibis birds start shadowing the drone about three legs. There's about, it was a big flock, fifty or so we're trailing it. Then about four five broke off from the flock and started, from what i could tell, pecking at the drone. So, I brought that back, landed and had to go get a bird bomb, which is like a little pistol that shoots, you could say, fire crackers. They shoot bangers. So, you shoot him out and they go out and they just explode. So, I  the field to go get a bird bomb get this little pistol, come back make sure I didn’t get swarmed by the ibis. When i took it off again, they came right back. I’ve pulled out the banger and shot it off to scare him off and they took off. So, it was a close call for some territorial birds to try knock down about 12,000 dollars of equipment in the air.

Michael Lambert: I think some of the things that we learned early on is notification is a huge thing, because we do work in urban areas so much. One of the things that I did is that I took a business card and made some labels to stick on the back of it. It was a brief description of what we were doing, assuring residents that were not spying on them or in no way collecting any data on them, and give me a call if you have any questions. Something that simple is to stick it in a few doors and you have zero issues with anybody worried about what you're doing. And then, I also have a similar story, uh, that we have sparrows in Texas, and they are actually mean little birds. They're territorial, actually more territorial than red hawks are. I've got two different job sites, but soon as I put the drone in the air, here they come. They're doing all kinds of acrobatics and trying to keep up with the drone. I haven't had any real issues with them yet. That's something to take into consideration.

Thanks to our sponsor, Esri, and we hope that you will visit our website directionsmag.com or drones.directionsmag.com for many UAV-related resources.

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