PITTSBURGH – Commercial drones have become popular over the years because of their ability to record photos and videos from the sky, both for professional and recreational use.
Manufacturers have made drones smaller, more affordable, and more automated. Anyone with a controller can now capture footage that used to be exclusive to a news crew with a helicopter. Both hobbyist and professional pilots can pull a drone from a backpack, connect it to a phone and fly within minutes.
“We often talk about being a world-class organization, so your technology has to be on point. You can’t be behind somebody else’s capabilities,” Kristen Scott, the chief of the geospatial section for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District.
Scott said geospatial offices could have begun using aerial footage years ago when everyone else had access to drones. Except, technology so versatile and easy to use also faced emerging problems. As the skies filled with buzzing quadcopters, so were the rise in conflicting airspace, privacy invasion, property damage, injuries to people, and security violations over federal lands, military bases, and other sensitive locations.
In 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration began regulating drones, followed by stringent guidance by the Department of Defense in 2006. By 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted all offices from flying commercial drones purchased in stores or online until it could publish new guidance.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride since 2018, ever since USACE grounded all corps flights,” Scott said.
Because most popular drone manufacturers are based overseas, DoD feared data breaches and safety incidents. Later, the U.S. Army published a policy allowing flights under certain conditions. After that, USACE developed its nationwide program for Unmanned Aerial Systems.
After many months of planning and coordinating, the district finally got its UAS program in the air last year to ensure their pilots, equipment, and safety measures met both DoD and USACE standards. As a result, every pilot is certified by the FAA, and their drones are American made.
“Being in the geospatial section is one of the most tech-savvy groups. We have all types of survey equipment or capabilities. Our UAS is another tool for the toolbox, bringing another dynamic to our capability within the district,” Scott said.
The geospatial UAS team consists of three pilots, and they can now offer services like aerial mapping, inspections, monitoring construction, digital surface modeling, and more.
“We can even document the spread of harmful algal blooms at reservoirs or fly in emergency response situations during floods,” said Huan Tran, a member of the flight team in the geospatial office.
Another benefit includes the quality of imagery versus satellite imagery. The team can produce larger-scale images with much greater detail.
“Getting meaningful imagery and video in a timely manner is kind of exciting,” said Brian Hickinbotham, a cartographer and pilot with the geospatial team.
Scott said this work is especially rewarding because of how much time they had spent developing the program in-house. Her team took more than nine months earning USACE approval. Initially, the plan was to rely on other districts that already had a flying program, but that service would be expensive and inefficient. It meant paying for someone to travel from out of state and coordinate schedules for weeks to create something that could be done in a day or less.
“I wanted the capability in house … There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears to make this program a success. We took our time to be able to roll it out correctly and appropriately, and so it paid off. It took longer than we expected, but at least we have the technology we need here at the end of the day,” Scott said.
The Pittsburgh District wants to remind the general public they are prohibited from flying UAS over reservoirs, dams and lock facilities on federal lands for any reason. To contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Geospatial Office for any UAS questions, please email: Geospatial.LRP@usace.army.mil.
All U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees who operate Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems are FAA Part 107 licensed using equipment approved by the Department of Defense and in compliance with Aviation Policy Letter 20-06. USACE Aviation adheres to the USACE Cyber-Security Risk Mitigation Strategy: a combination of software, hardware and procedural controls designed to thwart malicious attacks and data theft.