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In the world of landscaping and lawn care, few things can save time like a view from above. With the advent of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) technology, or drones, the ability to visualize and analyze large tracts of land is invaluable.

There are trends and technologies today that are changing the playing field for landscapers, turf managers and lawn professionals across the country. There are applications for mapping from the sky, as well as services that will help individuals save time and improve the bottom line.

Benefits of Drones.

Landscape professionals are just beginning to see the value of drones within their industry for bids, measurements, surveys and irrigation monitoring. “We believe that (our) drone survey is going to provide valuable information that would not be available through boots-on-the-ground surveying, and at a substantially lower price,” says Wendy Booth, president of Ivy Street Design in Denver.

Booth says “this drone technology is going to change landscape architecture as much as anything since (computer aided drawing or CAD).”

“Drone technology is going to change landscape architecture as much as anything since (computer aided drawing or CAD).” Wendy Booth, president, Ivy Street Design

Booth discovered the same thing other professionals such as the United States Golf Association (USGA) found: flexible, rapidly deployable drones can capture useful and detailed images for a fraction of the cost of other options. (The USGA not only used drones to map the entire 2016 U.S. Open course for management and broadcasting purposes, but it is using drones to study turfgrass drought, as well.) Some drones equipped with specialized cameras can also analyze nitrogen management and soil compaction in turf, as well as assess plant health and drought stress.

Today, any typical drone has a quality camera capable of collecting high-definition still photographs and video and is guided by highly accurate satellite-based Geopositioning systems (GPS). Imagery can be saved and shipped to a data provider, or uploaded to one of several cloud-based analysis services to craft images, maps, 2-D and 3-D models of properties, perform highly accurate measurements and plant counts and analyze for turf health. Drone imagery, because it is saved on a memory card on the drone as well as broadcast live to a controller, is available immediately in the field to share.

A typical image taken by a drone flying at 400 feet covers about 200 x 200 feet and has a resolution of 3 to 5 pixels per inch. Multiple images can be stitched together to make one large image with a GPS accuracy as good as 4 to 8 inches, allowing you to calculate area or distance very accurately using computer software such as CAD or ArcGIS. 2-D models can be made for drainage with the same accuracy, and 3-D models for buildings and landforms often have accuracies of 8 to 12 inches.

The typical four-rotor drone – or quadcopter – is currently the aircraft of choice for landscapes. It is capable of flying for 15 to 25 minutes per battery (depending on weather conditions). This flight time translates to coverage of anywhere from 25 to 75 acres flying at 400-feet elevation. Landing and switching out batteries for more coverage takes only a couple of minutes.

Quadcopters can also return to areas of concern and hover for more images, make a closer inspection of something of interest or orbit a point to explain a situation to a client. Fixed-wing drones are used for larger areas. These drones can either look like a typical aircraft (but smaller), or so-called “flying wings.” Fixed-wing aircraft can stay in the air longer than rotor-wing aircraft, but they cannot hover. Most smaller fixed-wing drones are made of foam and many pilots consider small fixed-wing drones safer to use in crowded environments.

Any typical drone features a quality camera capable of collecting high-definition still photographs and video.
Photo courtesy of Dan Stanley

Another feature of modern drones is the ability to use route-planning software. Any route can be pre-planned for all types of professional drones for any height. Route-planning software is highly accurate, fully customizable and will return you to the point of departure if you need to break off the route to change batteries. However, piloting skills are still needed if something goes wrong, thus drone flight is not yet fully automated.

Analyzing Drone Data.

There are two main ways to analyze drone data – either by apps created by a service provider and existing in the cloud or by a private company using their computers and software.

From a technology standpoint, there are a few key points that may be helpful. All apps that provide benefits to the landscaping industry are "cloud-based," meaning during drone flights, the data is captured and accessible to your desktop, smartphone or tablet. These cloud-based apps offer a new way of rapidly processing tremendous volumes of data (high-definition photography uses a lot of memory) and quickly providing the user with this data so it can be used for the task at hand.

There are several cloud-based service providers who serve as top industry players with toolkits worth investigating. These service providers have developed software that is not only user-friendly, but also highly effective in capturing and analyzing the data that meets specific needs, and reports upon it in an effective way for both your company and for your client’s benefit.

These companies also provide automated flight planning software that allows the user to create a flight path for the drone, select "GO," and the drone will autonomously take off, fly and land on its own. The data collected will be sent to the cloud and processed within a few hours. It generates reports per the user’s needs.

One cloud-based app is Drone Deploy, a platform that analyzes the data captured from several drone models, creating outputs ranging from Orthomosaics (aerial photographs with georeference points), terrain features, a popular vegetation index and even 3-D models which can be a benefit for visualization. This software ranges from $99/month to $299/month depending on the resolution requirements you have for your business or client.

Another platform is called the Precision Hawk Precision Mapper, a service from Precision Hawk. The platform currently has a large analysis menu for users to select, manipulate and overlay data gathered from above, including many vegetation indices to analyze plant health. Precision Hawk recently made its mapping and analytics platform available for free to encourage use and consistency for professionals.

Another solution offering mapping usability is Pix4D which offers similar terrain modeling and textured models for myriad landscape applications, ranging from Digital Surface Models, Digital Terrain Models and volume measurements for large stockpiles of landscape materials such as sand, rock or soil. Pricing ranges from $49/month upwards.

Other platforms exist that are worth exploring. For example, Sentera and Agribotix offer apps and usability. Additionally, Parrot recently expanded to enter the commercial mapping space, and others are sure to follow suit both with affordable (or potentially free) and user experience-focused platforms.

While these app platforms are designed with the user in mind, there may be several local data companies in your area that specialize in drone flight and data capture and that are certified under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 (Unmanned Pilot certification) regulations. This customizable analysis option is another way for companies in the landscape industry to benefit from drone data. Local data providers are in most markets across the U.S., so there is likely a company nearby to serve your company’s needs.

With new advances appearing nearly every day, the drone industry is a rapidly changing ecosystem.
Photo courtesy of Dan Stanley

The most important takeaway is that local companies are client-driven and are flexible to meet your needs. Cloud-based apps are product-driven and provide only a certain range of products, so shop carefully for the solution that meets your specific needs.

Whether you are looking at the health of grass for a golf course, or perhaps investigating tree canopies and counting trees for a municipality’s parks department, there are many ways to utilize these tools. Additionally, these platforms are all geared toward user experience and are therefore very user friendly and accessible from smart phones, tablets, desktops or the cloud. With new advances appearing nearly every day, the drone industry is a rapidly changing ecosystem, where corporate innovation and competition continues to push the limits of drone uses and user experiences.

Laws and Privacy.

Drones and their analysis tools will change your business, but some wonder whether they can fly anywhere desired. Any drone flight in the United States for commercial purposes must be performed by a licensed remote pilot. Licensure requires testing of airspace knowledge, weather and maps.

Privacy law regarding drone flight is a somewhat separate matter from property rights law in the U.S., as the FAA has decided to remain silent on privacy at this time. This means some of the burden for respecting the privacy of property owners falls on drone pilots. Compounding matters is the fact that the airspace over private property was defined by the Supreme Court in 1947, thus many analysts expect drones to refine the definition of "private property" in the coming years.

As the law stands now, drones have the right to fly over a client’s property with permission. Drones can transit to that property over another private property if the drone remains at least 83 feet above ground level (many recommend transiting above 300-feet above ground level to avoid conflict). Most people do not know that their property rights do not extend infinitely to the sky above their property, so it is best to land your aircraft immediately if someone is concerned about their privacy. Always respect a property owner’s privacy when flying, and err on the side of caution on the off-chance you are confronted. Often explaining what you are doing and showing images and process is enough to alleviate property owner concerns.

Considering the perks.

The landscape industry will soon benefit by using drones in their operations. Better mapping, bids, plant health monitoring, sales and other things are possible with drones and their software. Should you train staff to fly and use a cloud-based service provider, or should you hire a firm to fly and analyze your data? The answer will differ for every firm and depends on staffing levels, acceptance of risk, capital costs and available training time.

Whether you choose to learn to fly for yourself or hire a company to fly for you, your business will change the minute you start to use drones.

Tory Hanna is the director of business development at Origin Solar Energy in Brooklyn, New York. Dan Staley is a certified remote pilot and principal of Arbor Drone LLC in Aurora, Colorado.