Projects Take Flight with SCJ’s Drone Program

Drone imagery of our Centralia College TransAlta Commons project

Search and rescue missions. Window cleaning. Delivering life-saving medicine to remote areas. These are just some of the ways drones are being used today.

Drones have come a long way since they were developed for the military decades ago. They are more accessible, more powerful, easier to operate, and used in countless ways.  A London-based sushi chain is even using drones to serve customers!

A Drone’s Role in Design
Jason Bruhn unpacking SCJ’s new drone in 2018

The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is also putting drones to good use. In 2018, Project Engineer Jason Bruhn initiated SCJ’s drone program to examine project site components such as utilities and channelization, as well as to document project progress. “Drones can save a lot of time and money compared to evaluating a site on foot, especially if terrain is rough,” Jason said.

To get the program up and running, Jason researched and found a drone best suited for clients’ needs, developed protocols, and recruited SCJ pilots who he supported through the licensure process.

The SR 510 – Yelm Loop New Alignment project. Design overlay by SCJ’s Kano Melvin, drone footage by WSDOT.

Kano Melvin, senior transportation designer and drone pilot, uses the imagery captured by the drone’s camera to create 3D visualization models. With the camera’s ability to see down to one square centimeter (.4 inches), the finest of details are picked up for highly accurate images. Kano’s 3D models help clients and stakeholders more easily visualize what a design will look like when finished.


Preflight Considerations Are More Complicated Than You’d Think
Hillary Kirby runs through the flight checklist with visual observer Trent Grantham at a landscape architecture project site

Before flying the drone, pilots run through a checklist that can be as involved as the flight itself. The first step is getting approval to be in the airspace. This can take 30 seconds, via an app called Airmap, or up to six months if near an airport. The rules for where and when a drone can fly are many.

“The Federal Aviation Administration restrictions for drone flights near airports cover everything from how high drones can fly to the time of day flights can occur,” shares Hillary Kirby, an SCJ graphic designer and drone pilot. One way she uses the drone is to get photos of finished projects for clients so they can use them for marketing.

Weather is also a factor. The smallest added weight can affect the drone’s ability to fly. So any precipitation or close cloud cover means flights have to be rescheduled. “High winds can also make it hard to keep the drone on course, so we avoid those as well,” says Hillary. Another pre-flight step is a day-of practice flight to ensure everything is working correctly.

South Puget Sound Community College’s building in the new Craft District in Tumwater, WA

Because the drone can be easy to lose sight of in bright clouds, pilots have a visual observer (VO) whenever possible to help them keep an eye on it. “I love how this gives me a chance to work with a variety of people in the company,” said Hillary. “I try to get my visual observer to be someone who worked on the project so they can advise me in real time on which elements are the most relevant and interesting to get footage of.”

Hillary recently flew the drone down Capitol Boulevard in Tumwater for a corridor study. Kano is using the footage to mock up potential corridor improvements and those options will be shared during public outreach.

“With all the data and imagery the drone collects, and what our team creates with it, the project becomes much easier to understand for the average person,” she said. “It’s a wonderful tool for public engagement and marketing.”

The East Wenatchee Gateway Park project

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