An autonomous 3D mapping drone that slashes surveying times from weeks to hours has the potential to save lives and cut costs in many industries, according to the team behind an innovative new platform.
Researchers from Sydney’s University of New South Wales and Australian surveying firm, Linke & Linke Surveys, have partnered to develop an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which uses spinning Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to deliver fast and accurate 3D maps of targeted areas and features. Weighing about 12 kilograms, the small UAV can travel for up to 18 minutes above any terrain to deliver data from 30,000 reference points per second in real time.
UNSW and Linke & Linke join a list of international companies in the process of launching LiDAR aboard unmanned aircraft. Similarly, French drone manufacturer, Yellowscan, has developed an integrated hardware and software bundle for real-time UAV LiDAR mapping operations. Meanwhile, Riegl and Aeroscout’s strategic partnership has come to fruition with the recent launch of the Scout B-330 UAV helicopter designed for LiDAR surveying.
One of the main surveying uses for UAV LiDAR in large construction projects, where large costs are derived from measuring stockpile volumes and waiting for accurate data.
James Linke, director of Linke & Linke Surveys, said the UAV cuts data capturing times dramatically. “The cost savings would be in the region of 3,000 per cent, compared with a job being done by one person,” Mr Linke said. “If you have three or four kilometres of stockpiles, it might have taken five to 10 days [to measure]. Now it can be done in 10 minutes, and you have the data ready to use instantaneously.”
“After a 10-minute flight, you can have a point cloud that covers the whole site and is available in real time. This technology is going to dramatically change the way construction is done in Australia.”
Stay up to date by getting stories like this delivered to your mailbox.
Sign up to receive our free weekly Spatial Source newsletter.
The partnership recently received a $15,000 grant through TechConnect, a UNSW incubator program that supports small to medium-sized businesses to develop innovative technologies on campus. The program is funded by the NSW Department of Industry’s $12 million Boosting Business Innovation Program.
The UAV is still at the prototype stage, though the partnership team can already see many applications beyond the construction industry. One is asset mapping – being able to assess with centimetre accuracy where specific features or items might be, such as an energy company auditing the position of its powerlines. The mining industry is also expected to benefit from such a solution.
Research leader Dr. Johnson Xuesong Shen, a Lecturer at UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the UAV can help the coal-mining industry keep its workers safe.
“We have a research project at the moment looking at the safety of open-pit coal mining,” Dr Shen said. “[With the UAV] we can map out the high wall, do some analysis and figure out the risk of collapse.”
Mr Linke said the UAV allows surveying jobs to be done not only faster and cheaper, but much safer, too. “You can take a drone and fly it where you can’t send a human surveyor, and easily bring it back,” he said. “This is especially in situations like disaster relief, where there’s a need for real-time data capture.”
Mr Linke said speed is becoming a crucial element of success in engineering. “[The UAV] allows you to present data to the engineering team so that they can plan resources,” he said. “Engineering is moving now towards real-time reporting. Information that’s two days or two weeks old is not as valuable or useful.”