Drones and Natural Disasters: How Our Tools Have Helped Disaster Relief Efforts

With their capacity for data analysis and their resilience in the face of extreme conditions, drones have revolutionized how heavy industries map, analyze and clean up both their own worksites and environmental threats posed by radiation, runoff or toxic spills.

But drones don’t stop at cleaning up our messes. They also play a crucial role in the identification, analysis and mitigation of natural disasters, from avalanches and mudslides to flooding and wildfires.

In the heavy industries, we rely on this technology every day — and so do our colleagues in disaster response.


Mitigation: A Controlled Response to the Uncontrollable

“Mitigation” encompasses actions taken to reduce risk after a natural hazard or disaster or to eliminate long-term hazard risks, according to the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA). As Nicole Laframboise and Boileau Loko note in a 2012 paper for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), natural disasters can have a severe economic and financial impact, as well as permanently altering the landscape and ecosystems they impact.

While natural disasters cannot always be prevented, they can be addressed after the fact, and analysis of the conditions that trigger these disasters can reveal ways to improve safety and resilience in the face of them. Traditionally, surveying the scene of natural disasters has been done in person, sending in human teams to map and measure changes in the area. As the University of Michigan’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) notes, however, this “boots on the ground” process “takes a significant amount of time, is potentially dangerous, and costs a lot to pursue.”

Drones and mapping technologies can alleviate all three of the CEE’s identified burdens. These technologies play a key role in analyzing potential disaster conditions, understanding the impact of a present disaster and restoring lives to normal after a disaster occurs.


First Responders: How Drones Can Respond to Human Needs In a Disaster

The first and most pressing need after a natural disaster is to rescue the stranded and treat the wounded — and as Caitria O’Neill and Morgan O’Neill have noted, the window for response is small. Throughout the centuries, humans have turned to additional resources to assist in these situations. In the Swiss Alps, St. Bernard dogs were trained to assist survivors after avalanches; in recent decades, Chinese cities have attempted to use satellites to locate survivors after earthquakes.

Now, China is employing drones to do what satellite systems once did. According to Wired’s Joshua Bateman, Chinese researchers have begun employing drones equipped with multiple types of sensors to scan disaster sites after an earthquake hits. The data helps rescue teams pinpoint survivors so they can rescue trapped individuals more efficiently.

In Malawi, drones boost cell phone and WiFi signals in hard-hit areas, and in Rwanda Silicon Valley startup Zipline employs drones to deliver blood supplies to hospitals in remote areas, according to Wired’s Jack Stewart.

As drone technology expands and develops, so do the uses to which drones can be put — and the attempts humans make to test the limits of the drones and their onboard tech.

A trial program in Queensland, Australia, recently began testing the maximum range for flying lifesaving drones. The drones are equipped with first aid, food and water packages to drop to people they find in a disaster area, as well as a loudspeaker the drone can use to broadcast messages to survivors.

In the past, the drones have been used to fly supplies to people whom rescuers can see, but whom they cannot reach safely. Now, the program, under the direction of project coordinator Carrie Hillier, is examining the possibilities of flying the drones safely outside the operator’s line of sight in order to increase their range and usefulness in low-visibility conditions, such as smoke from wildfires.

Robotics researcher Robin Murphy estimates that when robots are employed in disaster sites, the disaster may be mitigated and life returned to normal up to three years faster than if humans addressed the problem alone. Murphy’s work includes not only drones, but also ground- and water-based robots highly adapted to access particular sites.


Better Maps, Lower Risks: 3D Modeling of Disaster Sites

As drone technology improves, applications for its use expand. By combining drones with high-resolution cameras, researchers at the University of Michigan under the direction of Dimitrios Zekkos have begun using drones to create 3D maps of disaster sites, providing a clearer image of potential hazards and mitigation options without risking additional human lives onsite.

The drones use both still photography and video cameras and operate in a pattern with a great deal of overlap, which allows them to create detailed, measurable images of the disaster site. Back at base, researchers use the drones’ data and image sets to plan the best ways to initiate cleanup and assistance programs, and to build or rebuild infrastructure.

Some disaster sites are already putting 3D drone mapping technology to work. Humanitarian technology and innovation consultant Patrick Meier worked on a disaster recovery mission in Nepal that employed drones to map hard-hit areas.


Flying Into the Future: Next Steps for Drone Technologies

Although drones can greatly expedite disaster relief and provide extraordinarily detailed information to assist with conservation efforts, they have certain limitations. One of these is the fact that they can crash — and when they do so in an ecologically sensitive area, they may leave damage or debris that harms the very environment the drone was sent to protect.

Evolutionary biologist Linda Rothschild was so concerned about this problem that she put together a team to create a biodegradable drone for the 2014 International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. The drone used mycelium and proteins from paper wasps to create a body that will break down in a natural environment, not unlike a wasp nest.

Additionally, while the cost of drones has proven prohibitive in the past, lower-cost options are expanding opportunities for drone use, notes the Guardian’s James Norman.  Conservation Drones founder Lian Pin Koh estimates that costs will soon drop far enough to make drones “a standard item in the toolbox” of conservation and disaster relief efforts.

Where will drones go in the future? The work of visionaries like Rodney Brooks focuses on creating robots that can not only venture into areas humans cannot reach and gather detailed data, but who can also think and reason about the data, analyzing and drawing conclusions from information in their environments.

Thinking drones may help us address common mistakes in managing disaster risk. As Thomas A. Lawson notes, all-too-human failings like denial, procrastination, or selective attention can hinder our efforts to effectively mitigate disasters or manage resources. Artificial intelligence that operates without these restrictions may help us maintain our focus and place our efforts where they can be most valuable in a disaster or conservation scenario.

Drones are already responding to disasters and improving our relationship with our planet. In disaster response and environmentalism, the day may come in which drones can not only tell us where to find survivors or endangered species, but also take their own steps to protect the lives they encounter.

Images by: nordroden/©123RF Stock Photo, artpilot/©123RF Stock Photo, pixelsaway/©123RF Stock Photo

How Waste Companies Can Improve Operations with Drones

From assessing stockpile size to detecting thermal heat, drones can assist in collecting data that’s more detailed and insightful than ever before. In addition to improving daily operational efficiency, drones can also mitigate environmental risk, save capital and make job sites exponentially safer.

To experience these benefits at your company, here’s how get started with your own drone operations.


Using Drones to Get Ahead

Data from drones helps waste companies complete each project more efficiently from the beginning. As explained by Andrew Kahler of John Deere drones streamline the grading process.

Traditional grading processes prepare the ground for operations by using large equipment over the course of several weeks. With drones, however, this process can be streamlined by way of a topographic survey and 3D model.

Drones also aid in better collection of the three V’s — volume, velocity, and variety. Waste Dive writer Kristin Musulin reports that these three elements are essential to assessing and analyzing workplace operations. Using drones to capture such critical information is much more affordable than hiring a manned flight and often leads to more detailed data collection.


Improved Landfill Operations

Adopting drones into everyday workflows can greatly improve operations. Michael Singer tells Waste360, that landfill managers can gain a comprehensive overview of their operations more quickly and accurately by using drones than with ground inspections. In turn, this helps companies save time on inspections and move through projects more quickly than counterparts who don’t use drones.

One company taking advantage of these benefits is Gordon Environmental/PSC (Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, Inc.). The merged design and consulting firm deploys a drone to fly over the site and take photos, and then uses another program to combine those photos into one large image. This detailed image is used to assess progress and identify areas that could be improved.

Drones can also provide insight into landfill capacity and help landfill managers predict current and future needs. Stephen O’Meara, CIO at Ada County, Idaho, adds that drones help monitor how much material is being added to a new landfill cell, how that new cell is growing and what groundswell, compaction and erosion look like across the entire landfill.

This helps waste management companies create new cells accurately and without delay. Such information also helps mitigate environmental risk, ensure compliance with regulations, and allows expansion at a safe rate Commercial UAV News writes.


Testing Accuracy

In addition to measuring dry stockpiles, drones can also evaluate liquid elements. Australian news site The Lead explains that amphibious drones can improve the efficiency of water testing. These underwater drones can collect and test samples from wastewater plants, chemical spills, reservoirs and more. With an easier way to test liquids more often, waste companies can make more accurate assessments.

Municipal Sewer & Water Magazine adds that amphibious drones can also check seals on water control gates and check underwater lines for leakages. Instead of sending down dive teams or having inspectors trudge through wetlands, several feet deep, drones and submarine units collect and send information to smartphones, tablets and laptops, where engineers can identify problems.


Stronger Proposals

Jennifer Castenson, the director of thought leadership for Hanley Wood, adds that drone data also helps waste companies determine a project’s scope. Sales teams typically rely on a set of drawings to propose the project terms to the client. If these drawings turn out to be inaccurate, clients don’t get what they see, which can lead to conflict and loss of capital. Drones, however, have a much higher level of accuracy that reduce this risk.

Another way that drones improve proposal accuracy — and predict future trends — is their ability to create time lapse videos. Drone operations software company Skyword explains that drone videos can be stitched together to better coordinate project logistics. This makes it easier to visualize past, present and future project status, which can be helpful when working with other commercial companies or with clients. Dronenthusiast points out that these images are irreplaceable when working with partners who are based remotely, because they enable partners to keep tabs on the project and ensure everything is being executed according to plan.


Reduced Waste and Environmental Impact

One reason for landfill inspections is to check for environmental risk, which can be detrimental to both a company’s financials and the earth itself. With drone mapping, however, landfill managers can identify wastewater and other environmental aspects that are costly to clean. Improved site inspections can reduce cleanup costs and keep processes on schedule.

Although commercial waste has a negative impact on both financials and the environment, Fortune writer Clay Dillow explains that drones can be used to reduce this building-related solid waste. Dillow says that certain drone software can be used to create 3D structural models and volumetric measurements, which aids in monitoring stockpiles. This is important for measuring resources like sand and gravel, which are especially costly.


Improved Safety

With reduced risk and improved workforce safety, waste companies can move ahead of competitors still held back by avoidable mistakes. According to David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, “we are beginning to see more widespread use of drones for surveying and monitoring conditions at landfills…it’s fascinating, and can be a useful way to reduce safety risks.”

How exactly can drones improve landfill safety, mitigate risk and prevent accidents? According to MSW Management, drones are becoming a popular tool for inspecting areas that are unsafe for humans to traverse (such as a transfer station at a waste to energy plant). They can also assess areas where hazardous material has spilled.


Thermal Heat Detection

Another drone feature that’s helpful is the ability to detect heat. Colin Snow, CEO and founder of Skylogic Research, says that some drones have thermal imaging cameras. These images take high quality images that inspectors and managers can then use to detect temperature variation on a site. Waste management companies and landfills can use this information to predict subsurface landfill fires before they spread, adds Forester Media.

Drones can also help enforce safety regulations through worker education. Pompano Beach-based Current Builders in Florida shows workers 3D models of potential hazard conditions, which helps prevent injuries and accidents before workers even get to the site.

Images by: Florian Pircher, David Mark, NakNakNak

Commercial Drones: 23 Experts to Follow for News and Insights

Between the constant exploration of regulatory boundaries and the near-constant introduction of innovative technologies, the world of commercial drones features a landscape that evolves quickly.

That means anyone who is currently using a drone to do business — or anyone thinking of doing so — faces some enormous informational hurdles. How do you keep track of evolving legislation and new technology?

By following the right industry insiders.

These are the 23 people and publications you will want to follow on Twitter to get up to speed quickly.


Sally French, @TheDroneGirl

Sally French has a blog, The Drone Girl, that serves as an excellent starting point for both hobbyists and commercial UAV pilots. She knows the drone industry very well, and her Twitter feed is a reliable source for news and industry trends.


Diana Marina Cooper, @Diana_M_Cooper

Diana Marina Cooper is PrecisionHawk’s senior vice president of policy and strategy, so she is on the ground every day in Washington working to communicate and influence industry regulations. Follow her for up-to-date news from the FAA plus intel on heavy-industry drone applications.


Gary Mortimer, @sUASnews

Gary Mortimer is the founder and editor at sUAS News, a site that has been reporting on small, unmanned aerial systems since 2008. Mortimer and the team’s other writers are all pilots and industry professionals, and the site’s Twitter feed is among the best information resources you will find in the commercial drone space.


Romeo Durscher, @romeoch

Romeo Durscher is the director of education at DJI, which means his job involves teach organizations and industries the best ways to apply drone technologies effectively and safely. Follow him for news, industry insights and a big-picture perspective on commercial UAVs.


Colin Snow, @droneanalyst

Colin Snow is the founder and CEO of Skylogic Research, which helps startups understand industry trends and the regulatory environment surrounding the use of drones. Follow him for some of the most thoughtful analyses of the commercial drone markets.


Droneblog, @droneblog

Droneblog is an excellent news source for both commercial and hobbyist pilots. Its Twitter feed is good about quickly posting any new articles the site publishes, plus relevant news stories from across the web.


Randy Goers, @DroneRadioShow

Randy Goers hosts the weekly Drone Radio Show podcast, which seeks to showcase the various opportunities UAVs present to a variety of industries. Goers is a city planner and strategist. Follow for podcast updates and industry news.


DroneLife, @Drone_Life

DroneLife is a blog that covers commercial and consumer news, but it has a special focus on construction and agricultural applications. Follow for the blog’s unique coverage of those particular sectors.



UAS Law Blog, @UAS_Law

The team at law office Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman have created a blog specifically for drone regulations where they can share news and their own insights. Follow UAS Law Blog on Twitter to keep up with their posts plus the additional research they share.


Brendan Schulman, @dronelaws

Another excellent legal source is Brendan Schulman, the vice president of policy and legal affairs at DJI. Follow him for the latest guidance and news out of Washington, plus relevant industry news he finds elsewhere.


Jonathan Rupprecht, @jonathanruppre

Jonathan Rupprecht is one of the top private-practice attorneys in the country to specialize in the rules and regulations that pertain to drones. Follow him for legal news plus tips on to get any certification you or your team might require.


Peter Sachs, @TheDroneGuy

Peter Sachs is the author of the Drone Law Journal and is an important advocate for industry drone operators because of his work in pushing back against many FAA regulations that he feels are overreaching in their scope. Follow for legal news and a healthy dose of mainstream media fact-checking.


Drone360, @Drone360mag

Drone360 is a magazine for both hobbyist and commercial operators that does a nice job of covering everything from regulations to news to everyday tips (e.g. how to travel with a drone). Follow for a regular feed of the magazine’s own pieces, plus occasional news from elsewhere on the web.


Helen Greiner, @helengreiner

Helen Greiner is a serial entrepreneur — her companies include iRobot and CyPhyWorks — who has spent her career working with robotics. Follow her to get a glimpse of a future powered by robotics, from drones to self-driving vehicles to automated delivery services.


Jonathan Evans, @jwce21

Jonathan Evans is the co-president at drone operations management software company Skyward and the president of Global UTM, a Swiss nonprofit that works to integrate UAVs into national airspaces. Follow him for glimpses into the future of unmanned aerial flying.



Greg McNeal, @GregoryMcNeal

Greg McNeal is a professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine University and co-founder of AirMap, a provider of UTM technology that allows for air traffic management of low-altitude drones. Follow him for thoughtful insights into where cutting-edge technology intersects with regulations and security best practices.


Gretchen West, @gawherry

Gretchen West is a senior advisor at the Hogan Lovells law firm in Silicon Valley, and she is the co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance. Follow her for insights into the entire spectrum of robotic vehicles, and their commercial applications.


Iain Butler, @theUAVguy

Iain Butler, Ph.D., is an EVP at hearing aid manufacturer Eargo, and he has been involved in the multirotor UAV community for years. He also has a company, Kextrel LLC, that provides aerial measurement and photography services, plus custom drone builds. Follow him for trends and industry news.


Unmanned Experts, @UnmannedExpert1

Unmanned Experts provide railroad and transport infrastructure inspections via drone, and the team also consults and trains other organizations on how to deploy drones. Follow them for unique insights into the transport sector.


Ian Smith, @SkyCapture

Ian Smith hosts the Commercial Drones FM podcast and works for UAV operations software provider DroneDeploy. Smith also hosts a commercial drone operators Slack group. Follow him for podcast updates plus thoughtful industry insights.


Drone Center, @DroneCenter

Drone Center tweets on behalf of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York, where students and researchers conduct in-depth studies into the challenges and opportunities of applying UAV technology in the public and private spheres. Follow for updates on the thoughtful, original research the center is doing.


Paige Mitts, @DroneOnUASUAV

Paige Mitts is an aerial photographer who specializes in bigger properties (e.g. hotels and hospitals). She also stays up to date on commercial UAV news, and she passes along important news and insights via Twitter.


Women and Drones, @WomenandDrones

Women and Drones is a blog that spotlights great work by women in UAV industries, as well as STEAM programs that work to get more women involved in scientific careers. Follow them for news as well as frequent shoutouts to the women who are doing important work in the field.

images by: Kevin Chow, Alex Bagirov, 贝莉儿 NG

8 Frontiers Where Drones Are Rapidly Changing Heavy Industry

As our new Chief Drone Office Andrew Maximow pointed out, the advent of two-click autonomous flight for drones “was really the watershed moment” that brought drones out of the hobbyist realm and into big industry.

Only a few years in, we are seeing some truly revolutionary applications of drone technology in industries such as facilities management, and oil and gas — not to mention construction, mining and solid waste.

Here are eight broad areas that are reaping the benefits of this business transformation today.


Securing Oil and Gas Pipelines

Drones are particularly welcome in industries such as oil and gas, where hundreds of miles of pipelines demand regular inspection to prevent leakages (or worse).

This has long been an expensive task. “Before drones, inspecting miles of pipelines was done by helicopter, truck, and on-foot for remote areas,” the team at EnergyHQ writes. “And while some inspections still require up-close review from an expert, drones are equipped with new tech to detect and deter potential leaks or methane emissions. Plus, instead of sending out a crew to inspect a remote location, drone surveys are also safer.”

That was an important point for Gail India, a state-owned gas transporter in India. In 2014, there was an accident at one of Gail’s pipelines in Andhra Pradesh that killed 18 people, and the company faced intense pressure to shore the safety of its pipelines.

In April of 2016, it began testing out drone surveillance on a pilot basis on a 200-kilometer stretch of pipeline in the north of the country.

And back in the States, the booming fracking industry has its hands full with its own safety concerns. In response, Physical Sciences, Inc. has been developing a drone specifically for this industry to examine pipelines and identify whether gas pipelines are leaking methane.


Thermal Imaging to Spot Problems in Built Environments

With UAVs that can conceivably surveil every square inch of a building’s interior or exterior, you have the ability to get real visibility into where you think warm air is leaking (and driving up energy costs, much to the chagrin of facilities managers and building owners everywhere).

In October, Facilities Management Journal discussed how UK-based FM services provider Mitie had begun to incorporate drones into its thermal imaging toolbox. The applications could be crucial to facilities and worksite managers, who would be able to use Mitie’s Inspire 1 drones to

  • perform building inspections,
  • look for potentially flammable spots in landfills,
  • and even spot bird nests in sensitive places.

The Inspire 1 can also help create thermal maps of a facility so it’s easy to spot any areas that require additional insulation.


Mapping Sites and Tracts of Land

The team at Kespry has been making huge advances with two-click autonomous flying, to the point that deploying one of its drones requires almost no effort.

Wayne Grayson has a piece on Kespry’s Drones 2.0 at Equipment World that demonstrates how easy it is to use one of these devices for mapping even sizable areas:

“After opening up the package, you call Kespry and speak to a customer service representative for about an hour as part of the initial setup process,” he writes. “When you’re ready to start mapping, you open the Kespry iPad app, draw an outline around the site you want mapped on the screen, drag a slider to the height you want the imagery taken from and launch the drone.

“That’s it. From there, the drone takes off, maps the site and lands in the exact spot it took off from. During flight, an on-board LiDAR sensor automatically detects and avoids obstacles like trees, cranes, and buildings.”

Afterward, the drone returns, connects to WiFi and uploads the images for you. Kespry has software, then, that will render a 3D model for you.

The speed of innovation, however, might be a little unwieldy for area managers and site managers (and surveyors themselves), who have enough on their plates to keep up with drone technology that takes a great leap forward every six months or so.

“It’s very possible many surveyors would rather hire a service provider to collect data than invest in a tool that can be obsolete is as little as six months,” writes Colin Snow, CEO and co-founder of Skylogic Research. “They may also consider short-term leases to ensure their technology is relatively current or just rent a drone when needed.

“Regardless of how small drones fit into the workflow, they will not only affect the industry, but they will also create new opportunities for independent contractors who, based on their experience, may be able to fly and collect data less expensively than surveyors.”


Improving Visibility and Communications Along Rail Lines

Interestingly, there is a killer app possibility in the world of railroads, both with freight and with commuter trains.

For one thing, train companies have the same problems as oil and gas companies: Miles of infrastructure that need constant monitoring. BNSF Railway moved quickly to employ drones in that kind of work. As journalist Thomas Black reports, the railroad company began flying its drones 150 miles in the sky to both monitor its tracks and to help the FAA understand regulatory challenges of letting drone operators fly the craft outside of their lines of sight.

But even passengers on the trains are finding drones helpful. As the team at Railway Innovation points out, some companies (and even the UK government) are testing how useful it would be to have drones follow along behind a train to boost in-car WiFi connectivity.

“Passengers are often frustrated by intermittent phone and WiFi access on the train,” the piece notes. “This is a real issue for customer satisfaction in the railway industry. The problem of tunnels and long stretches of rail through remote regions make internet connectivity a serious challenge.”


Securing and Surveilling Worksites

Then, of course, there is security itself, which can be a huge challenge at worksites and in built environments. A few startups have begun building drones to help solve those problems.

One such company is Aptonomy. It builds drones that essentially function as security guards to ward off intruders — and to keep human security professionals out of harm’s way, potentially.

MIT Technology Review’s Tom Simonite explores how this would work: “When on duty, an Aptonomy drone will be programmed to patrol a set area automatically, and use its onboard cameras to spot and approach any person entering who shouldn’t be. The drone would flash its warning lights, light the person with its spotlight and deliver a canned warning to retreat. A security guard in a control center would be notified, and the guard could take control of the drone and speak through it.”

Another drone-based security company, Pixiel Security, earned an award at the Expoprotection trade show in 2016 for its NeoSafe drone solution, which sends one or more drones out to spot intruders with mounted cameras, then notify site managers via an alarm.


Monitoring and Protecting a Worksite’s Wild Neighbors

Every worksite has neighbors that will be affected by the work being done, and it’s important to protect those neighbors who don’t have a way to speak up for themselves when ground is broken and machines move in.

With drones, it becomes relatively easy to monitor the populations of animals and other wildlife adjacent to a site. Drones are already being used to monitor and inspect all kinds of wildlife populations to gauge their wellbeing.

As Alissa Crane writes at DrDrone.ca, organizations are using drones to identify different animal species, track poachers and even assess the health of the plants in a forest. Deploying this same technology can help companies ensure they aren’t encroaching upon especially delicate environments, and they can measure objectively the health of their wild neighbors before, during and after a project.

Oh, and the B-roll makes for entertaining videos:


Monitoring a Community’s Energy-Delivery Infrastructure

As with railroads and pipelines, the infrastructure that makes a power grid requires continuous monitoring — and the ability to react instantly should something go wrong.

Again, let’s take the story to India, via the Bay Area. As Palo Alto’s Sharper Shape reported in August 2016, it had begun working with Indian power transmission company Sterlite Power to provide automated utility asset inspections.

“India has a power transmission network of more than a million circuit kilometers which is undergoing double-digit growth annually,” Sharper Shape’s team points out. “The use of drones will increase the uptime of the grid, reduce transmission tariffs, avoid grid blackouts, and also save the environment by reducing deforestation along the line corridors.”

Then, there are the power plants themselves. At a coal plant, for example, monitoring the equipment is more self-contained, but on a wind farm, where assets are distributed across a wide area, monitoring all of the machinery is difficult unless you have some reliable drones.

In February, the U.S. Department of Energy featured one Michigan company, SkySpecs, for that company’s ability to pancake the time it takes to monitor wind turbines. “Historically, inspections have been time consuming and expensive,” the DOE’s Michele Capots writes.

“While preventative maintenance has become a standard practice (rather than reactively waiting for problems to arise before fixing them), effective proactive maintenance requires large amounts of data. Today, SkySpecs inspections take less than 15 minutes — and they can conduct as many as 17 inspections in one day. That’s currently faster than any other inspection company in the industry.”


Capturing Time-Lapse Footage of Construction Projects

A lot of people get into the construction business simply because it’s so gratifying to build something. There aren’t many other industries in which you can step back from a finished 10-story building and say, “I helped build that.”

Clayco understands this, and its team had the foresight to film its construction of the Zurich Insurance Group’s North American headquarters:

LIFT Drone Timelapse Video from Clayco on Vimeo

images by: ©cozyta/123RF Stock Photo, Martin Wessely, Jason Blackeye

Introducing Our New Chief Drone Officer, Andrew Maximow

“I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think somewhere in the future, [as] we have CEOs and CFOs, … we may have a CDOs, a Chief Drone Officer.”

This is a 2014 quote from Al Allenback, a veteran U.S. Air Force pilot and professor at Troy University. Allenback led the university in creating a drone program that students can minor in.

Three years later, his prediction came true here at Firmatek, where in March we brought on Andrew Maximow to be our new Chief Drone Officer.

Andrew brings more than 20 years of experience both in management and in using cutting-edge technology to help enterprise-level customers solve business problems. For more than 15 years, he led teams at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley.

Then, in 2013, he took over as Senior Director of Client Services at 3D Robotics, a groundbreaking startup that uses drones to map, model and collect site data in the construction, mining and surveying industries. There, he worked with customers such as BNSF Railways and Google. And in 2016, Andrew became a managing partner at Austin’s robotics-as-a-service provider Drone Dynamics.

The common thread in all of those roles is Andrew’s ability to champion cutting-edge tools — whether those are 24/7 tech support tools or drone-mounted measurement devices — to enterprise-level customers.

That’s why we are so excited to have him on board at Firmatek, and to have him help our clients uncover important business insights with our drone program.

Granted, when you’re exploring a technological frontier, there are going to be some unique challenges and opportunities. That’s what happens when you create a whole new category of C-suite executive.

So, we asked Andrew himself what he thought about his new role, and where he sees the technology leading us.


What will the role of Chief Drone Officer will involve? What’s the big-picture vision for developing Firmatek’s drone services?

The CDO role involves building a drone program that complements Firmatek’s precision measurement, 3D mapping, and data analytics capabilities. Similar to our mobile laser scanning technology, drones are yet another tool for data gathering but they do so from the air. The simplicity of drones enables more frequent data gathering, providing our clients virtually real-time inventory control, production planning, and site management.

My role will be to seamlessly integrate drones into existing workflows, offer our clients new capabilities, and thereby drive additional growth for Firmatek.


How did you get involved with UAVs as a technology, and what inspired you to pursue it entrepreneurially?

I became involved with UAVs during the phenomenal growth of the DIYdrones.com online community and the amazing ideas and homemade drones being posted and shared by its members.

The convergence of four elements — the online community; quadcopter popularity; open-source autopilot projects such as APM/Ardupilot; and the availability and ubiquity of cell phone components/sensors, [the] same components also found in drones — was the inspiration for me to pursue this technology as the “next big thing.”


Was there an “A-ha!” moment when you realized drones had potentially innovative applications across industries?

The moment simple “2-click” autonomous flight (automatic take-off, landing, and flight planning) capability was implemented in a smartphone app, taking [out] the complexity of flying UAV by expert pilots, was really the watershed moment that opened the door for the potential of commercial applications beyond the DIY/hobbyist/consumer realm.

The only barriers that remained, at that time, were legal/regulatory restrictions that still needed to be ironed out. But, by then the genie was out of the bottle, and everyone realized it was merely a matter of time.


How do you see new technology — drones or otherwise — unfolding in area engineering and construction fields over the next decade?

It’s really not about the drone. Sure, over the next couple of years we’ll see rapid innovation in advanced sensors, real-time situational navigation, artificial intelligence (AI), and continued integration in air-space currently occupied by manned aircraft. I am very confident all of these problems will be solved with technology with many smart and talented folks.

The business opportunity is in data analytics, which happens to be a core strength for Firmatek. UAVs will be a key element digitizing our world, and Firmatek will continue delivering supreme confidence to the companies building this world.

Images by: ©Corr/123RF Stock Photo

8 Ways New Technology is Revolutionizing Landfill Maintenance

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For waste engineers, landfills are an ongoing challenge that require frequent measurement and the application of constantly evolving maintenance techniques.

After all, once tons upon tons of waste accumulate the maintenance challenges take on a life of their own. Liquid runoff must be managed, gasses must be contained, and the landfill’s own capacity must be monitored on behalf of the companies and municipalities using the site.

Here are eight ways technology is helping the engineers in charge of waste sites work more effectively.


Putting a Lid on Gas Emissions

Landfills give off lots of gas — and accompanying smells. Waste engineers spend incredible amounts of time finding ways to convert those emissions into something useful while mitigating any downwind fumes that a site’s neighbors could find nauseating.

Fortunately, some of those emissions can be turned into fuel, which is what French company Air Liquide is doing at a site in Mississippi. As Cole Rosengren at WasteDIVE reports, Air Liquide — which is just putting the final touches on its purification plant — expects to begin purifying the methane from that site, via a polymeric membrane, into around 1,300 mmBTU per day.

The company says its membrane technology can create biomethane with up to 99 percent purity.


Measuring Emissions with Drones

Drones have been a huge boon to heavy industry because they offer so many versatile ways to collect data. The same is true in the solid waste industry.

For sites that emit gases, “drones offer a sampling platform from which to traverse the atmosphere in three-dimensions relatively rapidly (at the spatial scale of landfill sites, anyway),” AWE International writes.

What’s more, with a single drone or a fleet of drones getting real-time samples in the air, you can control for variables such as wind speed and get a much more accurate estimate of exactly how much greenhouse gas emissions a specific site is responsible for, the authors write.

Therefore, drone data collection is poised to deliver some big ecological wins in this industry.


Bio-Covers to Reduce Methane Emissions

Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark are experimenting with materials they call Bio-Covers to reduce the amount of methane landfills emit into the air. The idea is simple: Cover a site with compost containing the right microorganisms, which can convert the rising methane into CO2, a gas that contributes exponentially less to any greenhouse effects in the atmosphere.

“The Danish Bio-Cover scheme for the control of methane emissions is unique worldwide in providing funding for this,” writes the consultancy NIRAS, which is cooperating with the university on this project and using drones — exactly as noted above — to help measure methane outputs.

“The scheme is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency, and the funding is estimated to be sufficient for controlling and mitigating methane emissions from approximately 100 waste disposal sites and landfills in Denmark. Currently, there are a total of seven pilot projects underway in Denmark.”


Using Materials to Control Odors, Too

More tangibly than greenhouse emissions, at least for nearby residents, landfills can give off some foul smells. Dr. Laura Haupert, Director of Research and Development at OMI Industries, recently wrote about how that company is implementing a solution for landfill odor it calls Ecosorb.

Ecosorb technology combines plant extracts, water and surfactants to lower liquid surface tension to eliminate odors at the molecular level — “without the use of harsh or hazardous chemicals, emission control systems, or masking fragrances,” the blog post points out.

Slippery Slopes: Managing the Liquids in Landfills

Leachate management is an ongoing challenge for solid waste engineers. When water percolates through the contents of a landfill, it becomes a pretty effective vector for introducing pollution into the surrounding earth.

That’s why the liners at the bottom of landfills have become such a serious focus of innovation. Materials engineers are constantly looking for ways to create better liners to contain that leachate.

One of the most promising such liners are made from geosynthetic clay, the team at AGRU writes, because that material is both durable and hydrophobic. Engineers today are using geosynthetic clay (GCL) to create composite liners with geomembranes (GM) that create two layers of leachate protection.

“When using GM alone, even the smallest hole brings leachate directly into the leak detection system with sufficient driving hydraulic head,” the AGRU team says. “The high swelling characteristics of the bentonite clay component in the GCL will work to seal the leak in the GM.”


Applying Geosynthetic Liners to Other Industries

Landfill managers aren’t the only ones who recognize these benefits. Mining engineers at coal mines have begun to use GCLs to help contain wet coal ash, Chris Kelsey writes at Geosynthetica.net.

“The coal ash resistant GCL is a specifically formulated, polymer-enhanced geosynthetic clay liner with granular sodium bentonite encapsulated between two geotextiles,” Kelsey says. “It is intended for containment of the potentially high ionic strength leachates in coal combustion waste applications.

“The polymer enhancement of the bentonite delivers outstanding performance under extreme conditions and chemical attack, making it ideal for lining systems with wet process ash or dry ash storage. This geosynthetic is unique in that high ionic solutions with elevated levels of calcium and sodium have historically been a ‘no-man’s land’ for bentonite-based products.”


Why Some Landfills Intentionally Add Water

One municipality in North Texas, however, is upping the water levels in its landfill. Arlene Karidis at Waste360 has the story:

The city of Denton, Texas, is working with researchers at the University of Texas, Arlington to increase and monitor liquid levels in its landfill. This has two benefits. First, it accelerates decomposition, thereby extending the life of the landfill. Second, that decomposition should triple the amount of useful methane gas released from the site.

The project relies on a novel method of monitoring liquids called electrical resistivity imaging, which lets researchers track the content and movement of moisture in the landfill, giving them precise data that will tell them when to add water and when to hold off.


The Internet of Things Brings a New Level of Intelligence to Sites

The universe of connected devices that comprise the Internet of Things has begun to transform several industries, including manufacturing and home energy management. This same technology, when applied to the solid waste industry, offers whole new ways for managers to gain insights on their worksites.

For example, the city of Atlanta recently hired cloud-based waste management company Rubicon Global to equip its fleet of hauling trucks with the company’s app, which makes it possible for fleet managers to track each truck’s routes and pickups in real-time.

“This cutting-edge suite of new services will enhance operational efficiency, improve customer service, and ensure a consistent level of service citywide,” Rubicon Global writes at Forrester Daily News.

“The insights gathered by Rubicon go beyond route analytics and pickup rates. Our partnership with the City of Atlanta will also provide valuable planning data for the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, most notably by enabling real-time information on current landfill diversion and recycling rates in support of the city’s zero-waste efforts.”

That kind of intel has benefits beyond the day-to-day operations of a site. For customers — i.e. local taxpayers — this can mean more precise, individualized billing for garbage collection services, the Fluid Gas Handling team at Parker writes, rather than simply charging all taxpayers an average price for collection.

“The system would reward you for reducing waste and increasing recycling and reuse. It is not a unique idea — simple measurements on garbage trucks and smart identification of garbage cans is already being piloted and underway. The ubiquitous presence of connectivity and reduced cost of sensing and cloud storage are enabling and accelerating it.”

Finally — and this speaks directly to the work we do at Firmatek — a distributed network of sensors means the materials, construction and solid waste industries can start analyzing their sites in more than three dimensions.

“By combining multiple datasets, it’s possible to develop 4D models that enable users to view conditions over time,” TechTarget’s IoT Agenda notes. “This approach provides the ability to detect and measure changes and provides important benefits to applications such as construction, earthworks, agriculture and land administration.”

The TechTarget piece even suggests a fifth dimension, cost, that can be layered over those analyses so that a site manager could easily visualize the resources, time and money needed to move solid materials.

Considered all together, the evolution of technologies that manage emissions, control leachate and monitor landfill sites will make the solid waste industry a very interesting space to watch in the next few years.
images by: ©conceptw/123RF Stock Photo, ©siur/123RF Stock Photo, Hans