Drone Usage

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.

Aii has looked at the ways drones can be used for damage prevention, even talking to drone pilots to understand the ways they use them in their profession. This Technology Highlight will look at damage prevention through a bird’s-eye-view once more to see how aerial technology can help to prevent subterranean infrastructure from being struck during excavation. 

The Common Ground Alliance’s 2021 Technology Report outlines 7 criteria for “an idealized excavation in the year 2030.” The report showcases elements that we have covered in our past Technology Highlights, such as one call tickets. The Technology Report also describes one way that drones can be used for land surveying in a manner faster, more efficient, and even more precise than done by personnel on terra firma. 

Drones can be used for land surveying in many different ways. They can take orthophotos, or aerial photographs that are geometrically corrected to scale. They can also be used to create models of plots of lands for development.

In this specific context, though, drones can be used to monitor unmarked or mismarked utilities during the excavation project. Equipped with cameras and software, drone will soon map and photograph the utilities and relay the information back to the facility operators, who update the information in real time. 

A big part of this surveying relies on GPR, or Ground Penetrating Radar. GPR sends microwaves into the ground and identifies echoes from subsurface utilities. The GPR has software that translates the signals into visuals to be interpreted by a facilitator. This technology is intimately familiar to the locating industry, as they walk along the surface searching for signals, detecting metal, and utilizing other techniques.

GPR is able to detect metal, plastic, PVC, concrete, and natural materials – overcoming a shortfall for many locating technologies. It is often used across industries to detect subsurface objects like underground utilities, bedrock, air pockets, and geological elements like rock obstructions. 

Check out this video by drone planning software UgSC to see how a drone equipped with GPR is used to identify underground gas pipes. 

A case study by Sawback Technology Inc. documented in the CGA report outlines the limitations of GPR without drone use. Formerly, GPR needed to be in contact with the ground, which means a couple of things. Mapping large areas would be too expensive and not done in a timely manner, and surveying terrain that is rough and inaccessible by personnel isn’t possible. Sawback addressed these limitations by mounting their system of GPR to a drone and found that their solutions provided “tangible benefits” for GPR for drone use. 

GPR has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, and when used with drones, has seemingly limitless potential. A massive upside to GPR is that it is able to detect subsurface utilities without disturbing the ground. When mounted to a drone, the upside is even greater as it can reach areas inaccessible to personnel and increase efficiency. 

Drone usage for GPR will likely require further innovation, as advancements in technology will continue to progress an already useful tool for damage prevention. Improvements in radar technology will help to better identify subsurface utilities and advancements in software will help to better translate images into easier-to-read visual representations. In the damage prevention space, tying more technology into the process will help improve communication and shared understanding about the presence and location of buried utilities. These essential roots of modern infrastructure are vital to keeping society running. Marrying technology into the safe excavation process is critical. 


Written by John Cassibry, Media Coordinator


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.