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Applications for UAVs in Civil Engineering

BY Alan Perlman
20 March 2015

Note: The following article comes from Sam over at Civil FX. Read more about Sam in his bio below. Want to write for UAV Coach? Kick us a note at

uav civil engineering industryThe horizontal nature of civil engineering lends to some practical and creative uses of UAVs in the industry. From planning to final construction, nearly every stage of the engineering process can benefit from the aerial craft.

While there are those that are slow to adopt new ideas and the government is only now working towards universal commercial laws for UAVs, there is still incredible potential in the field, today and in years to come.

It should be noted that many of the tasks required of UAVs are already taking place on many large projects, just carried out by full sized airplanes and helicopters. These include aerial mapping, LiDAR scanning and taking footage and photography for promotional purposes. However, as these tasks are handed over from manned to unmanned craft during this transitional phase smaller projects will be able to benefit from these uses. Costs will drop and the barriers currently in place for participating in aerial mapping and photography will become a reality for nearly all projects.

Additionally, while even the largest projects currently are usually flown only once due to the cost involved, in the future the mapping applications (both 2D imagery and 3D surfaces) can be more of a dynamic process with multiple flights throughout the life of the project. This can help in updating design imagery and surfaces and also help management track construction progress.

While these improvements on existing technologies will surely be welcomed to engineers and contractors alike (and those in the commercial UAV industry that capitalize on these new opportunities), there are a few less obvious uses of UAVs in civil engineering that I find particularly interesting.

Granted, my entire career is focused on 3D visualization in civil engineering so I’m a little biased, but utilizing unmanned craft in methods similar to how the movie industry is using them has surprising potential.

Currently, when we want to show existing conditions for a project we have to use photos and aerial imagery to recreate these areas in 3D. The process is time consuming and the results aren’t typically great. However, if you were able to fly a project and collect the incredible footage we are seeing from UAVs these days, you could potentially use the power of special effects to avoid existing condition modeling altogether. Through the process of compositing you could possibly combine the existing aerial footage with a virtual 3D flythrough showing a proposed project with realism beyond what is currently possible.

The other area where UAVs can transform 3D visualization in civil engineering as we know it is through the use of photoscanning. This is related to the current LiDAR/surface capturing techniques but differs in the fact that surfaces are rebuilt using only cameras (no laser scanning necessary). But not only can you capture the surface of the ground, photoscanning can capture the entire world as it currently exists. This includes trees, infrastructure, buildings, city furniture… and so on. This technology rebuilds these objects in 3D- using only the pictures and fancy algorithms- and also applies the images to the objects as a texture for an ultra-realistic look and feel. (You can try this technology yourself for free using the 123D Catch app by Autodesk)

Rebuilding the existing world in 3D using aerial photography may not offer the level of realism as the aforementioned composting, but it would allow you to build a virtual world and fly it and render it from an unlimited number of directions.

Regardless of how we use UAVs in the coming years, there is one thing that is for certain- we will use them and- if we let them- they will transform our industry.

sam civil fxSam Lytle, PE is the owner and founder of Civil FX, a visualization studio that focuses on transportation, construction and other civil engineering projects. He is a licensed civil engineer in the state of Nevada where he lives with his wife and three children.

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