This blog series Technology Highlight explores some of the ways that investments in innovation lead to better outcomes for infrastructure and public safety. When technology advances, it often becomes cheaper, more widely available and accessible, and helps facilitate faster, safer, and greener projects.

This series launched by highlighting the way that innovation leads to greater access to technology. Using mobile devices as an example, we saw the way that innovation drove prices down and quality up all while making a once exclusive technology virtually ubiquitous. From there, we dove into the damage prevention process to explore the way technology at the One-Call centers, locator equipment, and communication from the site to excavators improves safety outcomes.

In this blog, we leave the underground world behind and take to the skies! How does technology in the stratosphere relate to damage prevention? The answer is drones.

Drones can provide a plethora of different uses for damage prevention specifically and infrastructure projects more broadly. Enabling everyone from locators to excavators to get a bird’s eye view of a large excavation area can help reduce errors, as well as enhance the amount of data available for all involved parties. Drones can provide aerial shots of sites, scan large areas for potentially unmarked underground objects, and verify existing markings before a dig.

The application of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) system has been reduced in size and weight to be able to easily fit on a drone. This has allowed operators to view, verify, and track locations for enhanced positive response, as well as deal with any potential utility lines that could potentially interfere with a proposed excavation. Available systems also can be easily viewed through GoogleMaps or other commonly used software on phones or computers; saving locators and excavators time by easily interpreting the results themselves.   

Other mapping technologies that can be married to drones can track past digs in an area, damage or near-miss locations, and provide a detailed picture of cross bore areas before a dig. These mapping technologies can be utilized on-site. For example, if an excavator needed on-site information about utilities buried underground on a tight schedule, drone mapping can provide a more accurate picture of utilities that have already been marked by conventional methods. Photography drones may even be able to provide low flyover imagery for utilization in locator sketches and the design and planning phases for excavators.

Drones also offer a way to improve job-site communication and overlay other aerial shots of the property over job sites to account for sewer or electrical lines and can verify the type of soil grade that excavators can expect to find. Verifying construction project phases quickly and efficiently can also be cheap and easy for drones. By allowing drones to capture day-by-day operations at a site, excavators can easily account for underground utilities and verify tasks to speed up the construction process. Drone can also locate and map accidents, work progress, equipment, and document the impact of weather on sites. 

Finally, drones can be equipped with thermal imaging cameras, moisture monitors, or gas sensors. If incidents do occur, using these sensors on drones can help catch on-site problems early, while also being able to keep an inventory of different maps of the same area to help better understand what lies below a site and changes to the site in real-time. Being able to streamline drone information to both the drone operators, site managers, and workers themselves helps increase efficiency and safety while lowering accident rates. 

The versatility and dynamism that drones offer could unlock huge safety and efficiency gains for national infrastructure projects. Perhaps counterintuitively, as these developments illustrate, drones may even be able to provide greater clarity for what is underground.

In the next blog, we will explore some of the latest technologies spread across the damage prevention process, including those that help alert operators to prior or real-time incidents.


Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate


Interested in other technology highlights? Stay tuned for more ways technology is making damage prevention safer.


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.