DRONE’S EYE VIEW

The ups and downs of using this new technology. By CRAIG GUILLOT

EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN A DRONE OR TWO FLYING AROUND YOUR CITY, CHANCES ARE YOU WILL

COURTESY CAMBIUM CONSULTING AND ENGINEERING

soon. Inexpensive and easy to operate, they’re coming to the masses and taking hold in industries from
entertainment and energy to construction and engineering. ¶Planners say they could offer tremendous uses
in the field with real-time aerial views, high-resolution aerial imagery, and more detailed data for decision
making. Despite the potential, commercial drone operation remains illegal in the U.S. without a special
exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration. While the agency is moving toward establishing a
licensing system in 2016, many commercial operators aren’t waiting. It’s time to learn more about what could
prove to be one of the greatest tools we’ve seen in the past decade.

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Planning October 2015

A drone by any other name
Unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known
as drones, are typically defined as aircraft without a
pilot on board. They can be operated autonomously or by a human on the ground, and range from
multimillion-dollar machines the size of a school
bus to $100 units the size of a baseball.
Civilian versions are increasingly being deployed
for commercial applications all around the globe.
Energy companies are using them to inspect power
lines in the United Kingdom, Japanese farmers are
using them to spray crops, and the United Arab
Emirates is working on a prototype system of drones
to deliver government documents. Liam Young, an
architect and cofounder of the urban futures think
tank Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, says that within
the next decade drones could become as “ubiquitous
and as common as pigeons.”
Here in the U.S., drones have started to take hold
in a number of industries from real estate to construction. Robert Voigt, senior project manager at

Cambium Consulting and Engineering in Ontario,
says the machines have “great potential” for planning. Voigt’s firm has been using UAVs for almost
two years. Cambium was the first planning firm in
Canada to obtain a commercial drone certificate
from Transport Canada, the nation’s federal transportation agency.
Voigt says drones allow planners to “see more of
the environment they’re planning for.” They enable
planners to easily conduct topographical surveys
and learn more about an area by obtaining a “whole
new visual perspective.” They also offer aerial accessibility in a cost-effective and simple manner.
Planners can use drones to obtain instant aerial
views before undertaking the costly measures of
dealing with survey crews and hiring planes for traditional aerial imagery. Voigt says drone photography and video also deliver a “wow factor” and clear
communication in planning reports.
“Oblique imagery is a clearer form of communication and allows you to better envision the world

FROM TOP:
An image of the
inaugural flight of
one drone used by
Cambium Consulting
and Engineering.
The firm used a drone
to take panoramas
and other images of
Omemee, Ontario, to
help give people an
immediate sense of
scale and bearings.
A drone snapped a
series of images of
Fenelon Falls, Ontario,
which were used in
the city’s Community
Design Standards. They
show the relationship
between the built
environment of the
downtown core and its
natural setting.

American Planning Association

31

MAPPING CHRIST
THE REDEEMER
Aeryon Labs Inc.

Explores the firstever modeling of the
Rio de Janeiro statue
(2015).
tinyurl.com
/navlwza

AERIAL DRONE
VIEW OVER
NORTH BEACH
MARYLAND
CALVERT
COUNTY
Mid-Atlantic Aerial

Shows the city’s
assets, part of
crafting a new plan
with
help from
APA’s Community
Assistance Program
(2014).
tinyurl.com
/pdoujzg

VIDEO

40 USES FOR
DRONES
Ric Stephens
put together a list of
practical applicatons
for UAVs—and lots of
other resources—at
stephensplanning.com.

32

Planning October 2015

because you’re not looking straight down or straight
out. It’s a powerful tool to visualize location,” he says.
He adds that his firm has been able to get in four
to eight drone flights a day and obtain “spectacular”
imagery of sites. Cambium has been using drones
on behalf of a half-dozen clients—for urban design
work, to analyze development opportunities, and to
document existing projects.
Lane Kendig, based in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin,
is the strategic advisor at Kendig Keast Collaborative, a community planning and design firm. He has
written zoning codes and comprehensive plans in
the past and says drones could have tremendous
potential in helping planners conduct research, especially in the field of parking. He says most county
and city parking manuals are often “years outdated”
and believes drones could help planners more efficiently obtain up-to-date parking surveys.
“When it comes to writing zoning codes, that has
always been a frustration because you can’t always
get [reliable and up-to-date] parking information,”
says Kendig.
Small applications
Whether they’re used to scout a new piece of land,
analyze the layout of a community, or obtain images
for plan presentations, UAVs ultimately offer near
real-time information in a cost-effective manner,
Voigt says. Things like satellite images from Google
Earth are often low quality and up to three years
old. UAVs allow planners to put a camera hundreds
of feet in the air and obtain real-time views of just
about any location at any time.
Voigt believes drones could be especially beneficial to smaller communities. “Small towns can now
[obtain] site-specific aerial photos. They can do flythrough of areas and obtain phenomenal data and
images that can really change people’s perspectives,”
he says.

Cost-effective, easy to operate
Drones are widely available in the consumer market
and relatively easy to fly. Many models come with
high-resolution photo and video capabilities for under $1,000. Radios have ranges of up to one kilometer, and sophisticated flight controllers allow users
to easily maintain positions at virtually any altitude.
Real-time imagery from the drone is broadcast back
to a ground station monitor or the user’s smartphone. Voigt says even a “technically challenged”
person could learn to operate one easily.
“They now have gyroscopes in them and know
where they are in relation to the ground. They’re not
hard to fly; you could be proficient in a few days of
practice,” says Voigt.
That practice is less about being able to fly without crashing than it is to operate the drone smoothly
for good video quality. Operators must be highly
alert to their surroundings and altitude, especially
when flying at lower altitudes near buildings and
trees.
Ric Stephens, principal of Stephens Planning &
Design in Portland, Oregon, has been using a drone
for the past year to analyze projects, film presentations, and create photo simulations. He has captured
aerial photos for the University of Oregon for future
development evaluation, created photo simulations
of downtown designs for Mt. Angela, Oregon, and
shot video for the Portland Innovation District.
Stephens uses several UAVs, including a DJI
Phantom 2 Vision Plus, one of the most popular
consumer drones on the market. It features a builtin gimbal camera that shoots 14 megapixel photos,
1080p video, and can fly for 25 minutes on a single
battery charge. “When GPS-connected to more than
six satellites, it’s a very high-quality, stable platform,”
says Stephens, referring to the fact that drones have

an autostabilization system allowing an operator to take hands off
the controls.
There are dozens of drones with a range of price and capability. Based in Waterloo, Ontario, Aeryon Labs manufactures small
UAVs for commercial and government applications. Its SkyRanger
and Scout machines are being deployed around the world for power line inspections, disaster response, police investigations, surveying and mapping, and the oil and gas industry.
Aeryon vice president of marketing and product management
David Proulx says the growth in the UAV industry can be attributed to advances in technology that allow them to be made smaller,
cheaper, and easier to operate. Miniaturization of processors, GPS
units, batteries, and motors has dramatically shrunk the size of
machines and reduced costs. Easily transported in a small case,
Aeryon’s machines feature advanced software that allows them to
be controlled with tablets and even programmed for autopilot missions.
“They’re becoming intuitive and a lot easier to use,” says Proulx.
“Our [UAVs] were designed for people who have day jobs and
aren’t going to be full-time UAV operators.”
Proulx says drones offer tremendous advantages in aerial observation and imagery. When factoring in a machine’s lifetime of
aerial capabilities, they’re a fraction of the cost of photography and
observation from manned aircraft. As manned planes are barred
from flying too low or close to urban areas, they often have to capture images from hundreds or thousands of feet away. UAVs can
fly at ultra-low altitudes and obtain images at close proximity from
any angle.
New software solutions can stitch together hundreds or thousands of images to create highly detailed 3-D models of buildings
or areas. Voigt says that feature allows planners to visualize existing sites in detailed and precise ways that have never before been
possible.
Aeryon’s machines have been used to create complex 3-D models, including one of the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which has never been accurately modeled. Aeryon
captured 3,584 images of the statue in 19 10-minute flights, then
converted them into a 3-D model with Pix4Dmapper Pro. Proulx
says commercial users are only scratching the surface of what
UAVs could do for modeling buildings, neighborhoods, and areas.
“You can post-process imagery to create ortho-rectified 2-D or
3-D models that can be used in the planning process,” says Proulx.
“It offers a whole new way to visualize and measure.”

PHOTO BY CRAIG GUILLOT

The author, a drone
enthusiast, snapped
some pics about 150 feet
over a plaza in Seaside,
Florida.

Mitchell Sipus, CEO of Sutika Sipus in New York
City, has worked in conflict zones such as Somalia,
providing mapping for social research and humanitarian operations. Sipus, a planner, says that UAVs
offer tremendous benefits in the field of planning.
Ten years ago, he worked in refugee camps that grew
almost every day. The only way he could obtain
maps was to walk the perimeter of camps and log
GPS coordinates with his satellite phone.
“I had to come up with all these creative ways to
do planning back then. Nowadays, you could just fly
a drone up in the air and obtain images,” he says.
Sipus says while the machines now offer aerial
observation and imagery, they could have even more
uses in the future from advances in programming
and autonomy. The technology is still evolving, but
Sipus says that along with other machinery and programming, drones are simply a form of “social robotics” that can change how we see things and think.

Risks and legal issues
While they’re inexpensive and available, drones do raise issues.
Anyone can operate a drone for recreational purposes under
“hobbyist” regulations, but as of June 2015, the FAA still officially
barred using drones for commercial operation without a Section
333 exemption. The agency has so far only issued a few hundred
exemptions, which come with a strict set of requirements, including observation by an actual licensed pilot.
The agency is in the process of writing a framework of regulations for a licensing system in the next year or so. The FAA stated in
a press release in February 2015 that the permitting would be less
stringent and a private pilot license would no longer be required. A
drone operator would need to be over the age of 17, pass an aero-

‘Oblique imagery is a clearer form of
communication and allows you to better envision
the world because you’re not looking straight down
or straight out. It’s a powerful tool
to visualize location.’
ROBERT VOIGT, SENIOR PROJECT MANAGER, CAMBIUM

nautical knowledge test, and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. (For more on FAA rules, see “Know Your Drone,” May 2015.)
Flights would be limited to daylight and line-of-sight operation
below 400 feet. UAVs would also need to be registered and marked.
The proposed rule also implies there could be the inclusion of a
more flexible framework for “micro” UAVs under 4.4 pounds.
In practice, the FAA has yet to officially fine a single operator
solely for commercial operation. All fines levied so far have been
for pilots partaking in flights the agency has deemed “reckless.”
Aviation authority representatives have even stated in press releases that their selective enforcement strategy is meant to “educate”
and “prevent dangerous situations.”
“There are all kinds of people flying these things without a permit. It all comes down to policing,” says Voigt.
Stephens, who teaches a course on drones at Portland State
University’s College of Urban and Public Affairs, says there’s a lot to
learn before jumping in. The course covers history, laws and ethics,
aerodynamics and navigation, flight planning, operations, aerial
photography, and emerging trends.
UAVs do entail some risk. There have been a number of highprofile crashes and near-misses with airplanes. All drone operators
are supposed to stay at least five miles away from airports and stay
under 400 feet in altitude unless authorized by the FAA. A propeller, motor, or battery failure could send the drone spiraling down
to the ground.
With FAA approval or not, planners considering using drones
may want to think about liability insurance. There are now about a
half-dozen insurance companies offering policies to cover liability
and damages in the event of a crash or mechanical failure.
While Stephens believes UAVs have great potential, he says
they’re being hampered by “a lot of confusion” about federal, state,
and local regulations, compounded by safety, privacy, and issues
that the media “is quick to exploit.” Most public organizations that
have interest in drones are waiting for FAA approval before they
start deploying them, but many in the private sector aren’t waiting,
says Stephens.
“It is my sincerest wish that the U.S. will move forward with
this transformative technology so we can realize its extraordinary
benefits,” says Stephens.
n
Craig Guillot is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.
RESOURCES
ONLINE
“The Age of Drones,” by Ric Stephens, Planning, October 2013.
Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (drone
/UAV trade association): auvsi.org.
FAA official model aircraft operation rules: faa.gov/uas/model
_aircraft.
How to apply for a Section 333 exemption: faa.gov/uas/legislative
_programs/section_333.
UAV liability insurance: transportrisk.com/uavrcfilm.html.

American Planning Association

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