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Drone Mapping Reduces Utility Location Times by up to 50%

ReconnTECH Uses DroneDeploy to Disrupt the Field Inspection Industry

Call before you dig. From individual homeowners to major construction companies, anyone who has ever undertaken an excavation project knows this routine. For their part, major field inspection company USIC performs over 70 million such underground utility locates each year. This process — which involves both detecting utilities and creating a record of their GPS coordinates — is pretty straightforward, but when it is scaled up to include tens of thousands of locations, the time and associated costs begin to mount. Learn how USIC reduced costs, drove productivity in the field and improved data quality by integrating drone mapping into their existing enterprise workflows.

Chris Bartlett, Technology Director for ReconnTECH

Chris Bartlett is the Technology Director for ReconnTECH, a new branch of the company that, as he puts it, “invests and deploys technology solutions that solve problems and disrupt markets.” This includes working with major clients on utility locate projects, as well as inspections of elevated water and cell towers, electrical substations and solar plants.

For his part, Chris spent the majority of his career in corporate IT, infrastructure and networking. In 2013, he joined Premier Utility Services as their Technology Director. The company was acquired by USIC in 2015, and when USIC formed ReconnTECH in October of 2016, Chris moved into his current role at the company. Of his work with ReconnTECH, he says enjoys getting the chance to innovate. “It’s been enjoyable developing solutions that are actually impactful and solve problems, not just keeping the lights on.”

Chris shared a recent example of how ReconnTECH used drone mapping to disrupt the utility detection process and make a big impact on a customer’s bottom line.

Drones Reduce Field Time, Technician Costs for Utility Locates

One of ReconnTECH’s clients, a large telecommunications company, plans to expand their network of WIFI hotspots by attaching devices to existing poles across the country. Because this process involves burying wires, they have tasked USIC with locating the underground utilities around each pole — first at 424 sites in California and later extending to a total of 25,000 sites nationwide. Each site is approximately half an acre. Without the use of drones, this process takes about two hours per site. While two hours doesn’t sound like much, as Chris points out, that time adds up when you are talking about tens of thousands of locations. Add to this the fact that a technician who is trained to map GPS coordinates charges upwards of $100 per hour, and it is not difficult to see why ReconnTECH and its clients would seek an alternative option.

The standard process for detecting and locating underground utilities goes like this: First, one of USIC’s field technicians uses a Radiodetection location device to find utilities, marking each type of utility with a different color of paint. This takes roughly half an hour at each site. Next, the field technician uses a Trimble to collect GPS points for each marked utility at intervals of 30–50 feet. This takes another hour. From there, a GIS specialist at ReconnTECH’s offices uses the GPS coordinates provided by the field tech to create an annotated satellite map in Google Earth. This takes another thirty minutes or so, bringing the total time spent at each site to about two hours.

Technicians prepare to fly the DJI Phantom 4 Pro in the field

By bringing drone mapping into the equation, ReconnTECH has effectively eliminated the second and third steps in this process. Now, a technician needs only to locate the underground utilities and mark the ground with paint. After spending about thirty minutes doing this, the technician is now able to move on to the next site while a drone pilot comes in and flies the area in less than fifteen minutes. This reduces field time from two hours to forty-five minutes or less.

“By using drones…we have increased our field productivity by 50–75%.” –Chris Bartlett, Director of Technology at ReconnTECH [click-to-tweet]

Back at ReconnTECH’s offices, the aerial imagery is uploaded into DroneDeploy, where an orthomosaic map is generated. Because the map is orthorectified, there is no need to manually detect GPS points or use a Google Earth map for annotations. The map already includes a visual of the technician’s marks, as well as GPS coordinates for those utility locate marks.

Without drones, a technician can complete between five and seven sites per day. Depending on driving time between locations, drone mapping allows a single tech to complete at least ten, and sometimes up to twenty, sites in a single day. “From an operations perspective, this is tremendous,” says Chris.

In addition to this significant reduction in man hours, Chris points out that a technician who is trained to map GPS coordinates costs nearly eighty dollars more per-hour than a technician who is only trained to detect and mark utilities. And, although currently a second person comes to the site to fly a drone, ReconnTECH plans to further streamline the process by eventually equipping all of their field vehicles with a drone and training technicians to map as part of the detection process.

Orthomosaic map of one of the 424 utility pole sites in California where ReconnTECH is using drones to map the GPS coordinates of underground utilities

Drone Mapping Provides Actionable Data and Quality Assurance

Not only has drone mapping greatly reduced field time for this large-scale project, but it has also allowed ReconnTECH to provide the client with a greater set of actionable data. For each site, Chris and his team use DroneDeploy’s built-in measurement tools to quickly gain additional information, such as curb heights, sidewalk widths and even the elevation of utility lines so the client can ensure that those lines are hanging high enough for equipment to pass through. All of these measurements are annotated in DroneDeploy and sent to the customer along with a detailed table of annotations, such as the one pictured below.

“By using drones on this project, we are not only saving the time that the field tech is spending on each job site, we are providing the customer true, up-to-date information about the site.” –Chris Bartlett

Report of annotations, including additional measurements taken using DroneDeploy

In the case of the site pictured in the orthomosaic map above, the annotations provided by ReconnTECH alerted the telecom client that the street was only forty-one feet wide, meaning there was not enough sidewalk clearance to bring in the directional drill they were originally planning on using for the project. Thanks to drone mapping and ReconnTECH’s careful analysis, the client was able to discover this early in the process, without having to set foot at the site. With this new information, they will now perform a constructability analysis and adjust their plans accordingly.

“Considering the cost of renting a directional drill is between eight and ten thousand dollars per week, not to mention the man hours, project delays and aggravation saved by simply sending a drone up to perform a 10–15 minute flight, it’s hard not to see the value.” — Chris Bartlett

Chris and his team have also found drone maps to be a valuable tool for quality assurance. Again in this case, when reviewing the map they discovered two handholes (marked by red annotations on the orthomosaic map above) that had been missed by the field tech. Instead of having to make a costly trip back on site to take measurements for the missed manholes, they simply pulled up DroneDeploy’s measurement tool and captured the new information with the push of a button.

DroneDeploy Pairs with Fulcrum for an Optimum Workflow

All of ReconnTECH’s field technicians use Fulcrum, a mobile field inspection application that allows them to aggregate all of the data they collect on site, including ground photos, videos and inspection information. This information is stored as a complete, portable inspection record. Chris and his team now upload their annotated drone maps into Fulcrum as well, ensuring that a full set of data is readily available should a tech need to be dispatched back out to the site for a re-inspection or accident investigation. This record is also available for ReconnTECH clients, should they ever need it for compliance purposes.

Drone maps, along with ground photos and site videos, are uploaded into Fulcrum in order to create a complete inspection record.

Chris appreciates how easy it has been to integrate DroneDeploy into the existing Fulcrum workflow. “The DroneDeploy platform is intuitive,” says Chris. “One of the most important aspects is making the drone imagery available easily to our field inspectors and clients. We need a mechanism to deliver aerial imagery quickly. Because if it’s complicated, it’s not going to be used.” As ReconnTECH’s work with its major telecommunications customer has shown, their process for gathering and delivering aerial imagery is in fact used — and greatly appreciated — by management, technicians and clients alike.

Learn More

To hear more about how another company is scaling its drone operations, watch our webinar, Scaling Drone Operations, with Landon Phillips of DataWing and Ray Askew of Skyward. And as always, check out our support documentation for more great tips and tools, including:

Get Started with DroneDeploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.




DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at www.dronedeploy.com

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