Drones: The Future Planning & Design Tools

Drone advocates let out a collective sigh of relief as the new commercial drone or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) regulations, which was released by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), are more industry-friendly than expected. – Clay Dillow (Fortune, 2015).



Drone for Commercial Operation Regulation and Practicality

The Fortune said that it’s a promising sign for companies that want to integrate drones into their day-to-day operations and the drone makers eager to supply them with hardware, software, and support. Both CNN and Fortune reported that the proposed rule stipulates that drones used for commercial operations should:

  • weigh less than 55 pounds (without distinguishing between very small drones and larger models),
  • only be used for daylight operations in good weather,
  • fly no faster than 100 miles per hour,
  • stay away from airports,
  • and always remain within visible line of sight of the operator (Although, without providing further detail on beyond-line-of-sight operations)


Nevertheless, the regulation document prohibits flying at night or at altitudes above 500 feet, which is not quite practical if you want to observe a largely clear or flat ground space below and need to fly at higher altitude to get a wider scope of view and aerial information, for instance operations in the rural, agricultural areas, or meadows. This is also limiting atmospheric research that requires various degrees of latitudes.


FAA’s proposal apparently does not burden users with onerous airworthiness or pilot training requirements. Critically, the proposal will not require small drones to comply with the FAA’s airworthiness or aircraft certification regulations—that is, users won’t have to certify their 10-pound drones by the same process that one certifies a Cessna—and will not require the same training or medical rating required of manned aircraft pilots (Dillow, 2015). But the drone operators are required to:

  • be at least 17 years old
  • pass a separate knowledge-based certification process for drone operators that will require regular recertification
  • be vetted by TSA
  • obtain operator license


Future Prospects

This looks promising to companies looking to take advantage of drone technology, said Lisa Ellman, counsel and co-chair of the UAS Practice Group at the D.C. office of McKenna Long & Aldridge. For companies, getting their drones into the air won’t be nearly as costly or time-consuming. DIllow states that “the FAA seem to recognize that drone technology is outpacing policy and they are careful to build flexibility into their proposed rules and processes, considering there would be further development in the future. They still remains far from a final set of commercial drone rules, therefore the document leaves the door open to more detailed provisions in the future. It will accept comments on the proposed rules for the next 60 days and it’s expected to take another year to weigh all those comments and process them into a final set of regulations, likely sometime in 2016. But now that companies can get a clear direction on what the FAA and other agencies are thinking, so they can begin investing in their own concepts of drone operation.


Potential Uses for Drones in Planning Industries

Aerial imagery is significantly known to be important for urban planners and designers. And the recent introduction of UAV technology is important because it provides increased accessibility and versatility to provide aerial views with greater real-time details of urban images from various desired angles, scales and elevations.


Small, lightweight drones may look like simple model airplanes, but they can survey landscapes with thousands of digital images that can be stitched together into 3-D maps. Military and other government satellites produce similar maps, but emerging UAV technology can put that capability in the hands of small companies and individuals, to be customized and used for a seemingly endless variety of applications (Brian Handwerk, for National Geographic).

According to The Dirt, the technology was nearly unattainable a few years ago, but now anyone can purchase a ready-to-fly, GPS-stabilized, camera-equipped drone for the price of a cheap TV, effectively leveling the playing field in aerial imagery  Uniting the Built & Natural Environments). “You can just push a button or launch them by hand to see them fly, and you don’t need a remote anymore—they are guided by GPS and are inherently safe,” Olivier Küng, co-founder of Switzerland software company Pix4D, said in a May TEDx talk in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“UAV technology enables landscape architects and planners to examine the existing social and environmental conditions of sites. We can document accurate circulation through transit corridors and shifting urban and demographic patterns, as well as topographical and hydrologic changes and environmental degradation. A simple 5-minute fly-over video of an urban neighborhood at multiple elevations (displayed through an analog or digital forum), may reveal both empirical and experiential observations – the diversity of housing types, the voids of underutilized open space, the buzz of traffic patterns, the flow of natural systems, the nodes of community activity, or the light cast over the neighborhood at sunset. Conceptual overlays of proposed conditions or site analysis can then be integrated into the three-dimensional aerial video, adding a new level of spatial and temporal dynamics to the design process. Drones equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) scanners are producing three-dimensional representations of natural and built environments with amazing accuracy, while software such as Autodesk’s 123D Catch allows drone imagery to be stitched together to create a photo-realistic 3D model.” (The Dirt, Uniting the Built & Natural Environments).


Possible Project Implementations

In a broader perspective, this cutting edge technology has been utilized in several urban and environmental drone-enable projects and activities for various purposes such as (Source: Livescience):

  • Highway monitoring. A project to study the use of drones for inspecting roads and bridges, surveying land with laser mapping and alerting officials to traffic jams and accidents recently received a $75,000 grant from the Federal Highway Administration and the Georgia Department of Transportation. “Drones could keep workers safer because they won’t be going into traffic or hanging off a bridge,” said Javier Irizarry, director of the CONECTech Lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as quoted by LiveScience’s sister site TechNewsDaily. “It would help with physical limitations of the human when doing this kind of work.”
  • Atmospheric research. Ozone in the upper atmosphere plays a critical role in protecting the Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. To better understand how water vapor and ozone interact, NASA is sending a UAV into the stratosphere — the layer of the atmosphere where protective ozone is found — above the tropics. The flights are the first of an annual campaign to study how changes in water vapor in the stratosphere can affect global climate.
  • Ensuring environmental compliance. Midnight dumping of toxic waste and other surreptitious activities are the bane of environmental law enforcement. But drones may prove to be a cost-effective solution to that problem. A drone hobbyist in Texas discovered severe river pollutants in Trinity River near Dallas, from a meat-packing plant that was discharging into the river. The facility was soon under investigation by Texas environmental authorities (sUAS News).

Other than those, there will be more capabilities of a drone machine that can be utilized for other planning processes as well. However, those implementations so far are generally concentrated on a passive planning or monitoring approach, as in data collection or inspection through passive observations. Probably in the future, it would be more doable to promote drones as a more advanced planning toolkit, in a more intensive and active ways. For instance, robotic aerial construction, a field that addresses the construction of structures with the aid of flying machines, as initiated by ETH Zurich in their prototypical tensile structures project.


Leave a Reply