USACE Drones provide an eye in the sky for engineers
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers GIS Specialist and Remote Pilot Rachel Byrd operates a small Unmanned Aircraft System September 2, 2021. (Courtesy photo) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

In March of 2020, Geographic Information System Specialist Rachel Byrd and Project Engineer Ryan Fagan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District’s Engineering Division piloted the inaugural Small Unmanned Aircraft System flight for the district in an open field at the Parklands of Floyds Fork in Louisville, Ky.

“What I like about flying drones is that it offers an opportunity to solve problems in real time,” said Byrd.

Although the district’s quad-bladed sUAS (drone) was used to capture photographic and video imagery during the maiden flight, that is not the only data that can be collected with the remotely piloted aircraft. Other data, which is used for visual inspections, mapping, terrain modeling, high-resolution aerial images, energy transfer or thermal imaging and volumetric estimations are captured through the use of the camera and GPS sensors.

Engineers use data to safely complete bridge structural inspections, perform thermal inspections of roofs, calculate debris during emergency operations and assess land erosion at stream banks.

“It is important to stay current with technology and having the capability to put a drone into the air allows us to collect, view and use imagery or data in ways we’ve never been able to before,” said Paul Deatrick, Supervisory Geographer and Aircrew Training Program Manager. “Our program gives new options to traditional recon, survey and inspection processes which leads to new ways to visualize and analyze projects for our engineers.”

Before taking to flight, a mission requires a qualified remote pilot, a visual observer and detailed mission planning. To be qualified to fly, remote pilots must complete a four-hour basic UAS qualification course, 32-hour sUAS qualification course and demonstrate proficiency to a USACE Mission Briefing Officer or the Aircrew Training Program Manager. Visual observers must complete training with an MBO.

Visual observers keep the sUAS in line of sight when experiencing communication issues with the drone and simultaneously assist the pilot to avoid hazards such as tree limbs, raptors and other wildlife.

Mission planning begins with identifying what data is needed from the drone and whether or not it is the best method for collecting the data. The remote pilot confers with the customer and creates a mission plan which includes determining the date and time, identifying the mission area, coordinating airspace, assessing risk and obtaining necessary approvals. The mission packet is reviewed by an MBO, ATPM and finally approved by the Mission Approval Authority at USACE HQ.

Recreational use of drones at Louisville District USACE properties is limited to December first through April first at specific locations within Barren River Lake, Green River Lake, Nolin River Lake and Rough River Lake. Drones may not be flown near critical infrastructures such as locks and dams and will only blow in daylight hours while maintaining visual line of site while the aircraft is in operation. Remote pilots must follow applicable state laws and Federal Aviation Administration regulations including any UAS registration requirements.

USACE Aviation Program Management Office provides oversight for all aviation activities and is responsible for the standards and training.