“Good Gas, Bad Gas,” is how National Geographic has described methane. by Abe Peck

The main ingredient in natural gas, methane is very effective at trapping and producing heat while throwing off less carbon monoxide and smog than other fuels. Extracted from landfills, conveyed by pipelines, it can be burned for electricity, heat and power.

But methane can be problematic. It’s odorless, colorless—and flammable. Since up to 98 percent of landfill gas is either methane or carbon dioxide, it can become explosive if overly enclosed and insufficiently ventilated. Coal and methane can combust, causing mining disasters. Methane can displace oxygen and make air less breathable. Cast-iron pipes can degrade with age, allowing methane to escape. Explosions are fortunately uncommon, but put personnel, projects and surrounding communities at risk when they happen. More mundanely but important to the bottom line, lost methane equates to lost revenue.

Clearly, detecting methane buildups is crucial in a world of major energy needs and rapid energy change.

Detecting Methane buildups is crucial in a world of major energy needs and rapid energy change.

Enter Ravan Air

Located south of Erie, in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, Tru- Tek Drilling opened in 2000 to specialize in utility construction and pipe installation. By February 2018, it was ready to expand. “The owners decided that they wanted to add another service,” recalled Mark Sakach, Director of Operations, Ravan Air, “and drones looked like a good fit.” Sakach came to Tru-Tek from the natural gas industry for the launch of Ravan Air, which would specialize in UAV methane gas detection, drone GIS mapping, drone oil and gas leak detection inspections and compliance, pipeline monitoring and UAV emergency management services. Sakach soon moved up from project manager to become director of operations for the spinoff.

As a drone service provider, Ravan Air chose the Microdrones mdTector1000CH4 with a Pergam methane detector/gas sensor to build out a business that eventually would monitor landfills, pipelines and utilities. For Sakach, “ The Microdrones airframe is one of the best made with a carbon fiber body. As far as an industrial drone, we feel that they make the best. ” This drone can fly in straight-down rain, and can operate in heavy winds. “And customer support, they’re up there. They’re obviously the best for us.”

Within two months of its inception, Ravan Air was running demonstrations, deploying the md- Tector1000CH4 to a list of infrastructure customers. “Landfills really like the service we offer.”

Sakach outlined the efficiencies drone s provide for pipeline methane detection compared with on-the-ground personnel. Interestingly, speed across an open field was not a stated advantage . “I’m not necessarily going to do it faster than a guy walking across the field. You fly slow to detect methane.” Since avoiding explosions is crucial, the drone moves slowly: five to six ft/sec at 75 feet altitude over a methane pipeline, 10 to 15 ft/sec over a landfill. But drone speed is largely terrain-independent. “A guy walks two-to-three mph in good conditions,” Sakach said. “We did a 376-acre landfill in 11 hours, which would take that guy five days. We’re flying 50-foot swatches.” Customers also can factor in wind speed for their operational assessments. “Compared to the walkers. I’m more accurate because I have a better indication.”

When Sakach researched operations in West Virginia, personnel safety and liability also emerged as adoption drivers. Even a simple ankle sprain by ground employees could dearly cost an operator, he found. And vulnerability only increases with difficult topography. “Working on the side of a mountain at a 45-degree angle, that’s going to put an employee at risk,” Sakach noted. The same risk applies to expensive equipment. While no drivers were hurt, the company where Sakach previously worked “probably lost 5 ATVs—that’s a $5,000 to $8,000 machine at the bottom.”

Operational Advantages

In addition to its rugged airframe, the mdTector100CH4 software fully integrates an aerial methane inspection package. Combined with Microdrones’ intuitive workflow of Plan, Fly, Process and Visualize, Ravan Air can get to work quickly, searching for methane leaks.

To begin their plan, operators enter their mission into the MdCockpit Tablet Software, which plans and monitors progress along the survey area on an Android tablet. During the flight, a methane-dedicated Pergam LM Gen 2 gas sensor with an infrared laser/reflected-light analyzer, an FVP camera and an onboard .csv HD video link all work together to detect methane and the gases containing it from 1-50,000 ppm x m. Then they can process all exported post-flight data and visualize one convenient map. Providing a spreadsheet and the video, the collected data “indicate methane way before you get into an explosion,” Sakach said.

Readings of 250-450 ppm are considered to be in the yellow zone, with red alert starting at 450 ppm. “Fourhundred- fifty ppm is what we consider actionable,” Sakach noted. “They need to go and look at it.” But in environments where a pile of leaves can produce a reading of 1,000, follow-up qualification is the job of the landfill or pipeline operator. “We read the lay of the land. I look for indications, I never want to qualify.”

Because the Microdrones solution captures data autonomously, it also avoids any chance of what Sakach calls “pencil-whipping.” A ground pipeline walker is carrying a 10-15 pound detector. If equipment indicates any parts per million, he or she has to go back and qualify it. This can become problematic in hard-to-reach areas. “If a guy says he did it, how do you know,” Sakach asked rhetorically, without accusing anyone in particular. “I can’t fake this data.

“Apples to apples, I’m going to be as or more accurate,” Sakach continued. “I can give you an entire report with a video to back that up. And it’s faster. We’re going to fly up and down in a minute; the guy on an ATV is going to take an hour. And if he has to worry, how accurate is he going to be?”

Sakach also appreciated the multiple referencing afforded by drone operation. “We come back, they see an indication live or downloaded, and here’s what I saw with the camera at the same location. It’s not only georeferenced but has a video reference.”

Pergam LM G2 Methane lead detection. Zurich, Switzerland

Moving Forward

Ravan Air’s highest reading has been in the 1,200-1,500 ppm range; the company has never unearthed a huge leak, but methane detection is a better-safe-than-sorry business. Some customers initially had a hard time understanding the technology. “They are seeing it now. The landfills are taking off. On the landfill side, it’s been 5 times easier. I can prove how fast I can get it done.” Ravan Air has surveyed four landfill sites and is working on “a lot more.”

The natural gas pipeline industry has been slower to adopt due to price sensitivity, concerns about Public Utility Commission rules and regs, and user questions about plume height and some readings not even showing on traditional equipment. Nevertheless, two forward-thinking pipeline companies have retained Ravan Air for a range of scans.

Sakach expects business to “expand quickly”—in three years, he hopes to have 10 crews at work, and not just in Pennsylvania. Ravan Air also is looking at buying a mdLiDAR3000 system from Microdrones. It’s being tested with a company now for accuracy and consistency. In addition to increasingly precise scanning, Sakach would “love to see data sets that we can sell.”

As for the Microdrones mdTector1000CH4, Sakach appreciated being able to watch it in real time. “It works well for what we need. The video camera has been upgraded.”

“Overall, we’re extremely happy.”


mdTector1000CH4 Ground Operations
  • Flies above
  • Employee and equipment
  • Risk
  • 376-acre landfill in 11 hours
  • Five days
  • Georeferencing and video from above
  • Can’t “pencil whip”
  • Marked reference without automatically produced georeference, video or documentation; would have to do all this after finding indication.


Kylie Cressione, Remote Sensing Technician/UAV Pilot prepares the mdLiDAR3000 for a corridor mapping mission.

How Morris P. Hebert Inc. (MPH) uses the Microdrones mdLiDAR1000 and mdLiDAR3000 Integrated Systems to simplify their workflow and increase corridor mapping productivity. by Renee Knight

As a family-owned company that provides land surveying, GIS, engineering and environmental services, the team at Morris P. Hebert Inc. (MPH) saw the many benefits unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) could provide, including saving time and giving them the ability to deliver even more robust mapping products to their clients.

To get started with the technology, MPH invested in a fixed-wing system that made remote sensing with photogrammetry possible. That was three years ago, and at the time, a fixed-wing solution seemed like the best way to go. The team soon realized they wanted to do more with the technology than traditional photogrammetry would allow, and that they’d need to invest in a robust quadcopter or rotary aircraft that had the ability to take on different sensors—including LiDAR—to get the most benefit, Research and Development Coordinator Lee Drennan said.

That led them to the mdLiDAR1000, Drennan explained. Bringing LiDAR into the mix has been huge for the company, allowing them to simplify their workflow and increase their corridor mapping productivity.

“We knew from flying photogrammetry that there were limitations to what you could do with photogrammetry,” Drennan said. “It only sees what it sees.”

“We basically were able to increase our productivity from 1 mile a day with the 1000 to 3 to 4 miles a day with the 3000 while simplifying the entire process.”

Lee Drennan

MPH research and development coordinator


According to Drennan, the team was taking on work in heavily vegetated areas and needed LiDAR to penetrate through that vegetation to provide more accurate terrain models. The mdLidar1000 accomplished the job and helped MPH make the decision to invest in the mdLi- DAR3000 which can carry a larger and more accurate Lidar scanner, such as the Riegl miniVUX-1UAV.

MPH also started picking up projects from a local utility that tasked the team with completing different types of surveys, though corridor mapping was the primary need, Drennan said. The challenge? The client told them they couldn’t fly directly over the powerlines. That meant the drone had to cross the line at 90 degrees going back and forth. The corridor mapping feature Microdrones offers made it possible to fly parallel to the lines rather than perpendicular, a feature Drennan describes as game changing for MPH.

“Not only did it help get us better data but it also made our flying more efficient because we were able to fly two long lines at a time instead of flying 30 small lines,” said Jonathan Morris, vice president of remote sensing for MPH. “We were able to get more done in a day.”

While this was a more efficient way to complete the work, the team still needed photogrammetry—which meant the projects required two flights: one to collect information using photogrammetry and one to gather data using LiDAR.

“There’s a couple of things that aren’t ideal with that,” Drennan explained. “Obviously, it’s two flights, but in addition to that you’re not capturing exactly the same data set when you fly two separate flights, especially if the flights take place at two different times of day, or in some cases, not even on the same day.”

The mdLiDAR3000 eliminates this challenge, Drennan said. With this system, they only have to fly once to collect the information they need, allowing them to cut the number of flights in half and to capture identical data sets each time.

The LiDAR and the IMU on the mdLiDAR3000 system allows them to capture more data with greater accuracy than the LiDAR on the mdLiDAR1000. That makes it the ideal system to deploy when a survey requires classification of individual wires, for example, which is what the utility client needed.

“Having this propensity of data is very beneficial,” Drennan said. “We basically were able to increase our productivity from 1 mile a day with the 1000 to 3 to 4 miles a day with the 3000 while simplifying the entire process.”

The Benefits of Having Both Systems

MPH has one or both of these systems out in the field just about every day and Drennan explains that they both have their strengths.

The versatile mdLiDAR1000 has a great flight duration and allows for various payload options. Its LiDAR offers less point density than the mdLiDAR3000, but that isn’t always an issue. If they’re completing a terrain model in the desert, for example, that doesn’t require the same level of detail as when they need to pick up power lines. The system gives them good, clean data and is an excellent solution when they only need to capture photos or penetrate small areas with LiDAR.

When higher point density is needed along a route or more detail is required, that’s when they fly the larger mdLiDAR3000 that comes equipped with a Riegl miniVUX-1UAV or miniVUX-1DL paired with a 42.4 megapixel Sony RX1R II camera. And of course it gives them the ability to capture all the information they need in one flight as opposed to two.

In areas of high vegetation, LiDAR can streamline your workflow and help increase the efficiency of your project.

Why Microdrones? The Answer is Fully Integrated

When looking for a system, Morris team at MPH knew they wanted something that was turnkey. They had no interest in engineering a system, and needed a reliable solution that was ready to go out of the box.

“Everything being fully integrated was a big thing for us,” Morris said. “We didn’t want to have to turn one thing on individually because the more pieces you have to turn on or turn off or use software to update, the more chances you have for error in the field and in the office. We were looking for something with an integrated setup that was easy and efficient for what we needed it to do.”

Between the two systems, MPH has flown more than 600 flights, with the team at Microdrones offering them the support and guidance they need to get the best results for their clients.

“Microdrones has been a big part of helping us keep both units in the air,” Morris said. “Tech support is always ready to answer questions and help us through any issues. And we’d like to think they developed the corridor mapping feature just for us.”


How Crafton Tull employed both the mdLiDAR1000 and mdMapper1000DG to map a seven-mile corridor and save their customer more than 50 percent in the process.

When a client approached Crafton Tull with a project to survey a seven-mile corridor of new highway construction in Tennessee, within a two week period, Nick Tucker, project manager and vice president of the energy division, knew exactly which solution the professional design firm would use: the mdLiDAR1000 from Microdrones.

The client needed a topographic survey, a classified point cloud and up-to-date ortho imagery to create a high-resolution surface model that could be used for quantity verification, Tucker said. To begin the planning process, the team received a CAD file that contained the center line route, the right-of-way and the existing control points already on site.

“After a review of the site, I could see the Microdrones solution was going to be the best tool for the job,” Tucker said, “based on the terrain, based on the size of the project as well as some of the obstacles.”

They knew going in, that, that there would be several challenges, including the terrain change, which could be as much as 150 to 200 feet from the edge of the right-of-way to the center line, Tucker said. Then there was the size of the project, with the right-of-way getting as wide as 500 to 600 feet. The team also had to stay within the FAA’s Part 107 line of sight rules, deal with any weather conditions that popped up and meet the tight two-week turnaround time.

To do all this, Crafton Tull needed a rugged, reliable system that could quickly gather the necessary information, from a company that also provides the tools necessary to efficiently create the deliverables the client required. The Microdrones system met those requirements, while also saving them time and providing a more than 50 percent reduction in costs to the customer.

The Planning Process and On-Site Workflow

The team planned 22 flights with multiple take-off and landing locations to complete the project—13 with the mdLiDAR1000 and nine with the mdMapper1000DG. Most of the initial planning was completed in their office through AutoCAD and Google Earth before the team moved on to building flight blocks through the mdCockpit software. The ability to pre-build the blocks before stepping foot on site is just one of the ways using the mdLiDAR1000 saved them time.

Once on site, the two-person team flew the mdLiDAR1000 at 50 meters with 60 percent lateral overlap. They used the same take-off and landing locations for each flight, generally completing multiple flights from the same spot so the crew could monitor the UAS without having to move around. Alignment way points were used at the beginning and end of each flight block to make sure trajectory and orientation are accurate during post processing.

They also used a feature called terrain follow to ensure the drone stayed at a consistent height above the terrain throughout the flight, Tucker said. This was critical to making sure the data stayed consistent when outputting point cloud or imagery and creating the deliverables.

The mdMapper1000DG workflow was basically the same for the flights that collected the ortho imagery, except the drone flew bigger flight blocks at 120 meters with a lateral and forward overlap of 70 percent, Tucker said, which is key in top wind extraction for imagery.

DEM was imported into AutoCAD Civil 3-D and contours were generated and cleaned up for final design surface model.

A Faster Process

When it was time to start the project, the team left their offices in central Arkansas on Monday morning and arrived onsite about 1:30 p.m. Because the mdLiDAR1000 is so easy to use and set up, they were able to complete three flights by the end of the day, Tucker said. They finished the remaining 10 LiDAR flights the next day. On Wednesday, they started setting up the ground control points for the mdMapper1000DG, though they needed fewer because of the system’s direct georeferencing capabilities, which precisely connects aerial images to their geographic positioning on the Earth’s surface. A rain delay kept them from flying that afternoon, but when the weather cleared on Thursday they were able to complete all nine ortho flights.

“We flew the entire seven-mile corridor for imagery in one day,” Tucker said. “That’s an average of one flight per hour and that includes set up, tear down, take-off, landing, actual flight time and moving from location to location up and down the corridor.”

The team then spent Friday morning running initial checks on the LiDAR and imagery collected to ensure the field crew had the information they needed. In all, the project took 50 hours to complete—including travel time and delays. Processing took about two days, with another two days to complete the deliverables. So after just nine days, Crafton Tull was able to give the client exactly what they were after.

Using conventional methods, this project would have taken about 12 working days in the field, Tucker said. The drone completed that part of the project in five. With the drone, the design firm saved the client 66 percent in field work costs, which Tucker found is consistent with other projects they’ve completed via drone. Savings typically run between 40 and 70 percent, depending on the size and location of the project and the assets the client needs.

Improving Efficiencies

This is just one example of how the integrated systems from Microdrones have improved efficiencies for the Crafton Tull team, UAV Survey Coordinator Jeff Davis said, and they use it for a variety of the survey services they provide. With the system they can improve safety, reach once inaccessible areas and cover more ground in one day. With the mdLiDAR1000 they can cover about 200 to 250 acres per day and 450 to 500 acres with the mdMapper1000DG projects that once took several weeks can be completed in a day or two, and this improved efficiency is certainly something clients have noticed.

“The quality of the data that we’re seeing is unparalleled,” Davis said. “We get multiple returns with the LiDAR so we can penetrate the canopy and get some lower vegetation and we get ground data as well. We’ve worked with other UAVs in the past but what we’re seeing from the Microdrones integrated systems is superior. Since we’ve been using the mdLiDAR1000 we’ve gained several new customers and clients who are giving us repeat business. The investment has definitely been worth it.”

Better Results, Safety While Flying in a Busy, Restricted Airspace

With proper planning and coordination, construction company Brent Scarbrough & Co. was able to fly Microdrones mdMapper1000DG solution in controlled airspace over one of the most active airports in North America.

Lately, there have been plenty of safety concerns surrounding drone sightings at airports. But that’s not to say that UAS cannot actually provide safety benefits in and around restricted airspace.

When the team at Brent Scarbrough & Co. Inc., a Georgia-based heavy Civil construction company was asked to provide topographic maps of areas inside the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, they turned to the expertise of Flyover Services, a UAV data collection services provider, equipped with a fully integrated Microdrones system.

With the aid of Jake Hinton, a partner at Flyover Services in McDonough, Georgia, Alex Lowry and his team at Brent Scarbrough & Co. received the proper planning and authorization to fly the project missions in areas between the ninth and tenth runways at Hartsfield, which each year is one of the busiest airports in North America.

“We were actually the first ones to actually fly approved inside Hartsfield-Jackson airspace. We fly for a rock quarry that’s inside that airspace,” said Hinton, who originally flew such projects under the Section 333 guidelines and now operates with airport authorities on LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability). Recently the FAA expanded the LAANC to increase access for drone pilots into controlled airspace, and currently about 600 airports are covered by the capability.

Lowry, who works in as a drone operator for Brent Scarbrough & Co., decided to start looking into using an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to create topographic maps for construction projects a little more than a year ago. Ultimately the company invested in the mdMapper1000DG from Microdrones. While they’ve worked with the Hartsfield airport on possible expansion of the south cargo area around runways 9 and 10, it was with this latest project that the Microdrones’ solutions played a key role in delivering accurate data at a big reduction in time spent and cost.

The mission focus was to capture the exact ground from Brent Scarbrough & Co.’s original grading phase. While flying the Micxrdrones’ DG solution, the team was able to capture multiple mosaic images of the entire project site. Photos courtesy of Brent Scarbrough & Co. Inc.

Restricted Airspace Projects

“Generally, we’ve been working up there the last three or four years, and there’s a south cargo expansion job that we’ve been working on, with C.W. Mathews [Contracting], for at least a year, year and a half,” said Lowry. “It’s been on hold for about six months and the reason why we flew this last time was to get an idea of how the site is left at the current moment. The data shows a lot of areas where grating has been done, but it’s not finished. There’s not pavement down.”

There are no definite plans by the airport to follow through with the expansion project, according to Pittman, but the airport authorities wanted to know as much as possible about the status of the area.

Deploying the mdMapper1000DG system is more efficient and safer than traditional surveying methods, and provides the information Pittman’s team needs to efficiently complete the job. But working in and around restricted airspace can be tricky. Brent Scarbrough & Co. has worked with airports in the past, including some military installations as well as two previous projects at Hartsfield, but those did not include restricted airspace areas like this latest project does.

That’s where Hinton and Flyover Services’ experience played a key role.

“Brent Scarbrough came to me and I kind of did it as a project management side for them,” said Hinton, who noted that the ability for the mdMapper1000DG system to maneuver in tight spaces was critical for the project. “We helped plan, organize and get the approval for it. I organized all the meetings with the airport and with the engineers. This one was a very complex project. Most of these projects have been outside the airport itself. This one was actually on airport-controlled property.”

Once the approvals were in order, Lowry and Hinton and the rest of the members went to work, flying in the restricted airspace areas within the assigned timeframes.

“The mission focus was to capture the exact ground from Brent Scarborough’s original grading phase. Also, while flying this we are able to capture multiple mosaic images of the entire project site,” said Lowry, “We use the DG (Direct Georeferencing) because it is a highly efficient method for connecting aerial images to their geographic positioning on the Earth’s surface. DG surpasses the accuracy of traditional methods such as aerial triangulation, RTK, and PPK.”

Alex Lowry processed data captured from the mdMapper1000DG.

Efficient, Seamless Data Acquisition

The first flight time was 15 minutes, while the second flight time was broken up into two separate flights with a total of 55 minutes, according to Lowry. The third and final flight took 10 minutes—so the total flight time was 80 minutes.

For this project, Lowry said the payload included a Sony Rx1Rii camera with APX-15 imu and that LiDAR was not needed or used. The results were better than expected.

“We didn’t encounter much at all,” Lowry said. “They had closed the runway down and we had to be done by a certain time…we had an hour or hour and 15 minutes to fly [in one restricted area], and I think we were done in 20 minutes or so in flying the small part where there was a runway closure. With the equipment that we had, it was pretty easy to get everything done.”

Easy, Efficient and with an Abundance of Data

“With the DG technology packed into the mdMapper1000DG, we were able to run off a single base station for all three flights. It was three different flight scenarios, seven different take-off and landings and changing batteries,” Lowry said. “But the DG platform is far better than the old school methods of just laying out targets and trying to twist your job to them. It’s been really beneficial for us.”

It all came together for a seamless bundle of information. The pilots were able to deliver accurate contours across three different areas that all ended up in the contour map; it showed as a single map.

“Since the airport had areas that we couldn’t show, couldn’t fly over, we had to show it in three different phases,” Lowry explained. “We almost didn’t do it on purpose, but that’s what happened. The DG platform put us in the same coordinates…we laid out some arrow points, the propeller targets, and throughout the different phases, which helped us bring everything together in a real seamless fashion.”

Hinton, who started Flyover Services with partner Bill Tanner, said the flights required plenty of coordination, communication and, of course, the Microdrones mdMapper1000DG, the best suited solution for this project.

“It was between two active runways,” Hinton explained. “Hartsfield has runways running east and west and they just descend down as you go south. So runway 10 is the southern-most one and runway 9 is just up from there. There’s a pretty good gap between those, so we were essentially flying the area between runways 9 and 10.”

The teams had local airport operation on the ground while they were flying, with multiple visual observers onsite, and direct two-way communication with the airport tower the entire time. They basically were communicating during takeoffs, when on their way closest to the taxi and the runway, and communicating when they finished.

“We had constant communication with the tower and constant monitoring of the drone’s location, altitude, battery, mission percentage, stuff like that. We had a lot of eyes on it,” Hinton said. “We had a lot of cooperation and help from the airport itself, to make sure it was safe. We had many precautions built in and geofencing around certain areas.”

He said the airport has object-free areas designated close to the side of every taxiway because “when a big 747 rolls through there the wings are going to go past the taxiway, so you have an object-free area that you have to stay out of.” Because of this, the team had to geofence that all off, and make sure the drone never crossed into any of those off limit areas.

That’s one of the many reasons why the mdMapper1000DG was well-suited for this project.

“I was impressed with what they had. It worked great for what we were trying to do,” noted Hinton, who has flown fixed-wing units on several projects. “In this case using a multi-rotor was very necessary because we were operating near taxiways and we had such a tight area.

“Using a fixed-wing wasn’t feasible. We had to go to a very specific point, stop, turn and come back. With a fixed wing you’d have to loop out a little bit and come back the other direction. So Microdrones was really the only option. It was great for a real confined flight plan like that to keep us out of e restricted areas.”

The results and the safety also were impactful.

Faster, Safer Results

“This is all photogrammetry-based topographic mapping, so essentially we were getting topographic data across a very large site in areas that are highly secure,” Hinton said. “Instead of having to send a survey team out there—and you know some of these areas are dangerous for a person to be in—instead of having boots on the ground out there, were able to knock this out in half a day for something that would have taken a traditional survey team days, if not a week…and as well as get a lot more dense data.”

What about the risk of drones flying around airports?

“People hear of a drone flying around the airport and think danger, but to be honest this was a lot safer,” Hinton said. “We had one little 15-pound drone flying and getting data instead of having a survey team out there in a secure, you know, somewhat dangerous area.”

The photogrammetry-based topographic mapping produced data across a large site in areas that are highly secure at the Hartsfield- Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Flying the mdMapper1000DG to acquire the data saved the project team a lot of time while also delivering highly accurate results in a safe environment.

Learning to fly

Students enrolled in Mohawk Valley Community College’s two-year Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Program have the opportunity to fly the Microdrones md-4 1000 as part of their studies, giving them valuable experience in the field. by Renee Knight

Leaders at Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC) are always looking for ways to keep the New York based engineering school on the leading edge, and to put their students in a position to land quality jobs after graduation. That’s why they decided to add a two-year Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) Program to their curriculum in 2015.

Professor Bill Judycki, an electrical engineer and a licensed pilot, was tasked with developing and leading the program, which he said is one of only four in the country that allows students to design, build, test, program, fly and apply RPAS technology. Students have access to a fabrication lab modeled after MIT’s, a top-notch flight simulator room, GIS classes, and a variety of local companies and organizations that are working toward moving RPAS technology forward.

Giving students the opportunity to fly a drone in the field is one of the most important elements of the program, and for it to be successful, Judycki knew he needed to invest in a modular, reliable system that’s easy for new operators to use. It didn’t take long for him to select the Microdrones md-4 1000 as the program’s solution. Not only is the company’s U.S. office only 15 minutes from campus, the system comes with all the features Judycki wanted for his students, including easily swappable payloads, durability, long flight times and high accuracy.

“Field work is extremely important,” Judycki said, “and I can’t think of a better aircraft for my students to f ly than the md-4 1000.”

Why Microdrones

When looking for a drone, Judycki wanted a solution the students could use for a variety of missions including mapping, surveillance and crop monitoring. He knew buying one system for every application would be too cumbersome, as well as lead to maintenance and integration headaches.

“I have one platform that can perform multiple applications, and with the modular approach I can snap out one payload, snap in another and we’re off to another application,” he said. “That’s the best part about it. It’s easy to program and easy to fly. The learning curve is very short with this copter.”

Different sensors can be swapped in and out of the system in less than five minutes, Judycki said. The first package the students use allows them to create accurate high-resolution maps, and the second incorporates LiDAR for accurate 3-D mapping. Students have created “some really high-tech maps” for local colleges and a variety of agencies, Judycki said, including fire departments, police departments and Homeland Security.

“We can shoot the high-res map with the first package then switch to LiDAR to create a 3-D point cloud,” he said. “We can then take the first map and throw it over the point cloud to get a nice 3-D model.”

MVCC is located in a rural area, which means there are plenty of ranches and farms for the drone to fly over, Judycki said. The third package, which features a MicaSense multispectral camera, can provide local farmers with valuable information about crop health. The final package is used for surveillance and inspection, and comes with a thermal camera that features high-power zoom capabilities.

Not only does Microdrones make it easy to change out payloads on the md-4 1000, the company also offers a level of support Judycki hasn’t found anywhere else.

“Our team is absolutely positively ecstatic about the great support Microdrones offers,” he said. “I’ve bought a lot of different aircraft from different vendors and most of the time they sell you stuff then say ‘bye, don’t bother me.’ Microdrones has gone way above and beyond with their support and are great to deal with. They’re always just a phone call away. They also provide excellent training.”

The Future

The school’s RPAS program is in its third year and already has one class of graduates. That class consisted of about 15 students, but that is a number Judycki expects to grow as deploying drones for commercial applications becomes more and more popular, opening up a variety of job opportunities.

“I’m seeing an awful lot of interest,” he said. “There’s outreach to be an explosion. If it doesn’t happen this year it will be next year. The applications are unlimited and there’s quite a bit of excitement about the technology.”

MVCC is even working with the nearby Syracuse City School District through the Syracuse Pathways to Technology (P-TECH) program, which Judycki describes as a “direct pipeline” to MVCC’s RPAS program that gives students a head start on their degree.

As MVCC’s program expands and the technology behind drones evolves, the team will continually make updates to the curriculum to ensure students receive the best education and hands-on training possible. They’ll infuse as much new technology into the program as they can, Judycki said, and will continue to keep up with the latest advancements in this growing new job market.

“It’s a great emerging technology, and I tell everybody one of these days we’re going to be flying these things back and forth to work,” he said. “They certainly make life very easy and they’re a hot topic with pretty much everybody we talk to. We try to stay on the leading edge, and that’s what led us to Microdrones. We have yet to find anything that comes close to the quality, durability and of course the performance of what we have with the md-4 1000.”

Microdrones Completes BVLOS Corridor Mapping

The Road Less Traveled: Microdrones and construction leader Strabag worked to complete a groundbreaking BVLOS corridor mapping mission this summer.

The manufacturer was able to meet Germany’s requirements for conducting BVLOS flights in uncontrolled airspace, a milestone for the drone industry. by Renee Knight

In June, the mdMapper1000DG from Microdrones successfully mapped 12 kilometers of corridor along highway A33 for German construction company Strabag—and flew beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in uncontrolled airspace to do it.

These groundbreaking flights, one 5 kilometers and the other 7 kilometers, represent a milestone for the drone industry, Microdrones sales manager Samuel Flick said. Not only was Microdrones able to meet German requirements to receive approval for the BVLOS mission, the team deployed a system equipped with advanced technology that enabled them to quickly, easily and safely complete the flights, saving the construction giant a significant amount of time and money.

With these flights, Microdrones provided Strabag with a point cloud and orthomosiac of the highway system, assets that are far more detailed than anything they could capture using traditional methods, Flick said. These products made it possible for the Strabag team to collect data more efficiently.

The project represents an important step forward for BVLOS drone flights, which can benefit many different industries in Germany and around the world.

“BVLOS flights bring us opportunities not only in construction but also agriculture, inspection and energy segments,” Flick said. “This technique offers a great benefit, making it possible for companies to capture long strips without wasting time moving the drone around and finding a new spot for flying. The drone can take off and land in one spot and do its thing.”

Preparing for the Flights

In Germany, regulations restrict unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly BVLOS of the operator, which limits what companies like Strabag can do with the technology, Flick said.

One of the biggest challenges with this project was obtaining permission to fly, but because Microdrones already had a relationship with German authorities, it didn’t take long for their request to be approved.

“We received permission in less than four weeks,” system engineer Jonas Reitz said. “We’ve been working with authorities for maybe one year now, so they know exactly what we’re doing. They know our features and how we’re working.”

The relationship between Deutsche Telekom and German Air Traffic Control also played a role in this successful mission, Flick said. In Germany, drones can connect to the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management (UTM,) which locates, monitors and tracks UAS connected over the Deutsche Telekom mobile network (LTE)—making safe BVLOS flights possible.

The Technology

While obtaining permission was key, these flights never would have happened if the mdMapper1000DG didn’t come equipped with the necessary advanced technology. Its LTE modem and a FLARM Collision Avoidance module are among those technologies.

The FLARM module makes the drone visible to manned aircraft flying in the area, Reitz said.

“It’s a small transmitter that senses the position of the drone every second and has a range of 20 kilometers,” he said. “Every helicopter, for example, can receive the signal, which is also around the drone. If the other aircraft are equipped with the FLARM module, the cockpit will generate a warning, so every manned aircraft is warned when they approach the drone. And our drone can detect if airplanes approach the airspace around it.”

Another benefit of the system? It features direct geo-referencing, so there’s no need for ground control points, Flick said. The technology needed to reference the hundreds of pictures captured is already in the drone, saving the time it takes to put out and collect ground control points and making it possible to produce the high-quality mapping products companies like Strabag require.

“We use a four-point check for quality assessment,” Flick said. “This is very important because otherwise we’d have to put out dozens of ground control points, say 100, to get the accurate point cloud. With the mapper’s IMU onboard, the metric camera, sensor and double frequency GNSS antenna, we’re able to get this type of data in BVLOS flights.”

Conventional Mapping

Traditionally, when companies need to complete a large corridor mapping project, an employee uses a GPS rover to collect the hundreds of points needed to create the map, Flick said. This could takes days or even weeks to complete. The mdMapper1000DG, on the other hand, finished both corridor flights for Strabag in about half an hour each.

It’s also easier to continually map an area that changes over time when using a system like the md- Mapper1000DG, Flick said. Rather than sending someone out multiple times to collect data to monitor progress, the drone can complete the mission in a day.

“With this drone you get a lot more data very fast and it’s a lot more detailed than what you get with conventional mapping,” Flick said. “And you can process it the way you want to process it. If you want to look at just half of the data collected and process it that way you can.”

Moving Forward

The system performed even better than expected during this project, Flick said, and has opened the door for other BVLOS drone f lights in a variety of industries, which is huge for UAS manufacturers and operators.

“What we came out with is a real-world scenario for f lying BVLOS in uncontrolled airspace. This works right now,” he said. “We have a commercially viable BVLOS solution in Germany. This really is a milestone in the industry.”


Condor Solutions flew the system in Arctic conditions at the Berkut Oil Rig in 2016. by Renee Knight

In February 2016, Condor Solutions, a Russian-based drone service provider, became the first to fly an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to inspect the biggest oil rig in the world—and they used the Microdrones md4- 1000 to successfully complete the mission.

The Berkut Oil Rig weighs 200,000 tons and is expected to extract 4.5 million tons of oil every year. At 345 feet wide, 436 feet long and 472 feet tall, the rig is located in the Sea of Okhotsk on the Russian Pacific Coast, which is just north of Japan and in an area known for its brutally cold temperatures.

The size of the rig and the Arctic weather conditions presented unique challenges, which is why they needed a durable, reliable UAS like the md4-1000 from Microdrones. Using this system, the team was able to provide the information the client needed to make decisions about the rig’s flare system. Flying the drone also saved them time and made the process safer for the workers involved.

“We inspected the rig’s flare system, which is the most important system of any oil and gas object,” said Pavel Reichert, of Condor Solutions. “We delivered a detailed report of the complete flare system, including infrared analyzation. Every bolt was inspected there.”

The Many Challenges

February is known as the coldest month in this area, and during the inspection the temperature came in at -13°F with wind speeds reaching about 27 miles per hour. The rig’s parameters combined with the wind speed led to high turbulences that the UAS had to overcome to complete the mission—which was no easy feat but one the Microdrones system could manage. The Mil Mi-8, a medium twin-turbine helicopter produced by Russia that is typically used for these inspections, has a wind limit of about 18 miles per hour.

The team also had to rely on batteries during the inspection, which were of course affected by the Arctic temperatures, Reichert said. The drone, the base station, the control panel, the camera and the external screen were all powered by battery. The cold batteries reduced the drone’s flight time from 40 minutes to 20, with the pre-check flight time taking a minimum of 10 minutes. Another option involved using cables, but that combined with the cold led to the loss of gimbal stabilization.

With only seven or eight visible satellites, limited GPS signals also made it difficult to fly, Reichert said. This meant the system had to be operated in full manual mode, which, while safer than other methods used to complete these inspections, comes with its own risks. The magnetometer was switched off to eliminate malfunctions.

Thermal analysis was the priority during the inspection, Reichert said, but the team couldn’t fly a standard thermal camera because of the big differences in high and low temperatures. They instead used a thermal imaging system from the Czech Republic based Workswell WIRIS, which offered full radiometric images for precise post processing.

“For me and my guys any offshore work is stressful, but maybe that’s because we’re not the sea guys,” Reichert said of the challenges that came with this milestone mission. “We didn’t have space for any mistakes during this inspection. There was no place for an emergency landing.”

Despite all the challenges, the Microdrones MD4- 1000 performed as expected and completed the mission successfully.

Why Microdrones

To fly such a massive structure in these extreme weather conditions, the team needed a robust system from a manufacturer they could trust. This marked the first time the rig was inspected via drone, and there really was no room for error.

The MD4-1000 features a drive system that automatically maintains proper flight attitude in changing winds—which was key for this project. It is designed to fly in harsh conditions, including strong winds, magnetic fields, high temperatures, voltage, humidity and any number of environmental factors that can negatively impact a drone’s performance. The system also can handle most popular sensors and carry a payload of up to 2.7 lbs.

The MD4-1000 behaved well during the mission, Reichert said, and was equipped with the features needed to perform this industry first, successfully collecting thermal imagery of the Berkut Oil Rig’s flare system via drone—and doing so in harsh Arctic conditions that most systems couldn’t handle.

A Geo-Odyssey of UAS LiDAR Mapping

The ASPRS seminar addressed drone mapping fundamentals including LiDAR sensors and georeferencing.

When it comes to unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for mapping and specifically to the power and potential of LiDAR sensors, there’s a lot of enthusiasm…but limited education.

It’s one reason ASPRS sponsored the Unmanned Airborne LiDAR for Precision Mapping workshop led by distinguished Mohamed Mostafa, chair of the ASPRS Precision Mapping by UAS Committee and director of the Microdrones mdSolutions Team.

Mostafa explained, “It’s important to ASPRS that we educate newcomers—from drone pilots to geospatial students—to the UAV space, particularly those who may not have survey backgrounds. By sharing knowledge about GNSS, photogrammetry, LiDAR, inertial navigation and geodesy, we can help them ask the right questions, invest in the most appropriate tools and derive the best results.”

Held after the ILMF/ASPRS Annual Conference in Denver, Colorado, in February, the workshop provided a comprehensive overview of mapping concepts, tools, techniques and applications.

For many of the 30+ attendees, it was an eye-opening experience and set the stage for greater interest and adoption.

Air-to-Ground Basics

The development and production of survey and engineering quality maps is not an easy conversation in today’s high-tech world.

That’s one reason Mostafa provided a comprehensive look at the key fundamentals necessary to deliver a final mapping product (e.g., DEM, DTM, TIN). He outlined current tools and techniques (e.g., airborne photogrammetry, satellite imagery and airborne LiDAR) to gather the data and process accurate results and further delved into the key georeferencing methods with an introduction to GNSS basics (e.g., radio frequencies, ranging concepts, positioning modes, error sources).

Because the accuracy of the data is directly related to the positional accuracy of the drone as well as the LiDAR sensor, he went on to describe the value of an inertial measurement unit (IMU) as well as a GNSS-aided inertial navigation system (INS) to deliver GNSS-aided inertial navigation solutions—which packaged as a whole delivers one positional correction to the entire dataset during post-processing.

 He also outlined today’s readily available reference stations, earth observation networks, online positioning user services (OPUS), Canadian Spatial Reference System (CSRS)—all of which set the table for a discussion about data gathering techniques common to UAS-based photogrammetry and LiDAR missions.

Direct Map Production

Surveyors and UAS-based data gathering experts are likely familiar with methods such as precise point positioning (PPP) and broadcast PPP-derived corrections such as Trimble RTX, as well as real-time kinematic (RTK), post-processed kinematic capabilities (PPK) and direct georeferencing (DG).

He pointed out that, while popular, RTK and PPK have inherent problems that reduce their accuracy, productivity and efficiency. One of the major factors for the reduced accuracy of RTK and PPK is the calculation of orientation angles of any sensor.

Surprising to many at the workshop, Mostafa emphasized, “RTK was not recommended in drones for mapping.”

“Map accuracy is fundamental to the quality of the map product,” he said. “The RTK approach sacrifices accuracy and quality for speed. Further, why do you need real-time data when you’re going to spend time post-processing the data to develop the map?”

“This was a surprise,” said Aaron Handl, survey project manager with Harris Kocher Smith who attended the workshop, “because RTK is commonly referred to as the Cadillac approach throughout the UAS mapping industry.”

Handl, who has more than 15 years of experience in land surveying and is one of the company’s two licensed UAS pilots, said the workshop “completely flip-flopped” everything he thought he knew about UAS-based LiDAR missions and positioning. “I had somewhat of a photogrammetry mindset going into the workshop from the UAS experience I’ve acquired over the past 12 months all of which revolved around photogrammetry. Dr. Mostafa explained that relative position of the vehicle could be more accurately calculated by relying on the measurements from the UAS’s IMU coupled with GNSS rather than relying on RTK-GPS.”

Mostafa also discussed the value of PPK and DG as alternatives. One disadvantage of PPK is that it requires a base station. However, in many cases, a public network such as CORS may be dense enough to serve the project’s purposes.

DG, on the other hand, measures the orientation angles of any imaging sensor with high accuracy and high frequency at 200Hz or more (200 times per second) and surpasses the accuracy of traditional methods such as traditional aerial triangulation (AT), RTK and PPK. By measuring the true 3-D coordinates and orientation angles of any sensor (with the use of a GNSS receiver and an IMU), DG allows for direct map production. It needs no ground control points except for quality control.

DG is a cost-effective enabling technology for LiDAR, search and rescue and Multibeam Sonar, making it ideal for emergency situations such as oil spills, disaster relief/response and similar applications that require comprehensive map data very quickly and accurately.

“With DG, survey and mapping teams can collect images and post-process in a fraction of the time compared to AT and the data gathering effort will require fewer people and less equipment. Most important, you’ll deliver the best possible accuracy on projects where human safety and your reputation is on the line,” Mostafa said.

The most common applications of LiDAR in today’ market are corridor mapping such as roads, railways, pipelines, waterway landscapes and electrical transmission lines (about 65 percent). Other applications include mining, coastal mapping and avalanche prediction, as well as rapid response such as natural disasters, oil spills or well leaks. Less common applications include forestry, hydrology and geology.

Re-Aligned for Accuracy

Mostafa closed out the discussion with a comparison of photogrammetry and LiDAR, as well as his recommended best practices for planning, execution and post-processing missions.

Here are a few points to keep in mind:

Mission Prep/Base Stations:

  • No less than 4 hours of observation if goal is centimeter accuracy
  • Minimize baseline separation to <20 km
  • Keep away from trees and buildings to minimize reflections causing multipth problems

Mission Execution

  • Continuously monitor the inertial sensor for navigation changes
  • Regularly check data recording device to make sure data is logged as expected

Post Mission QC

  • Once drone lands, check logged data for gaps, inertial sensor errors, and that raw GPS observations are as expected

Mostafa warned, “The industry is seeing a lot of advancements. The potential in hardware for UAVs is high, but the software is still lagging. Look beyond the flashy hardware and ask detailed questions about software capabilities.”

Robert Chrismon, director of UAS services for Spatial Data Consultants, Inc. in High Point, North Carolina, said the workshop gave him confidence he was headed in the right direction. Chrismon has been land surveying for 22 years and spent the last four years static terrestrial laser scanning. He’s recently been tasked with investigating and piloting UAS-based photogrammetry sensors to deliver survey grade maps. When asked about the workshop value, Chrismon said, “This workshop confirmed my belief that making the change from static terrestrial to unmanned mobile is the right approach for our company—and provided (we know) the best practices and key questions to ask to move forward successfully.”


The Institute of Solar Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) deploys Microdrones unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to inspect solar power station technology that uses an array of mirrors. by Renee Knight

As one of the world’s leading concentrating solar power (CSP) research facilities, the Institute of Solar Research of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) is always looking for ways to hone solar energy technologies and improve solar power plant performance.

CSP uses a large array of mirrors that focus solar radiation onto a small area, and is a complement to the popular, low-cost photovoltaic (PV) cells in a completely new grid system. PV cells power solar plants by converting sunlight into electricity. CSP, on the other hand, stores energy thermally, can be turned on and off on demand, and can deliver power even when there’s no sun. For this to happen, the array of mirrors must be inspected to ensure they’re working as they should.

Back in 2009, the DLR team began looking into how unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) could make parabolictrough solar field inspections more effective, and quickly determined Microdrones offered the solutions they needed to map these solar structures, said Christoph Prahl of the DLR. The Microdrones md4-200 and md4-1000 are deployed through what is known as the QFly project.

“These mirrors need to be aligned very precisely concerning their geometry,” Prahl said. “We have different types of optical measurement technologies and take images of these mirrors to get their geometry. Then we can calculate the performance of these concentrated solar panels.”

The team completed the first successful UAS flight over a Spain-based solar power plant in 2014. They now fly between 50 and 100 missions a year with the md4-1000, Prahl said, collecting aerial images to find defects in a mirror’s shape, module orientation, torsion, or tracking deviations. About 60 collection segments can be inspected in one day.

Once the images are gathered, they are evaluated with a corresponding software, enabling the team to determine the optical and thermal properties of the solar field—and ultimately how the station is performing.

A More Effective Way to Collect Data

Before investing in the Microdrones systems, Prahl and his team acquired the images they needed via cherry USER SHOWCASE pickers, which wasn’t very efficient. Deploying UAS saves both time and money, and makes it possible to perform inspections without shutting these stations down. In just 30 minutes, the drone can gather the high-quality images needed to perform the required calculations—images they just can’t get from a camera on the ground.

“The benefit of using a drone is you have a larger variability in perspective,” Prahl said. “It’s not possible to characterize solar plants if you’re taking images from the ground. Taking images from the air is much faster. It can be done automatically. If you tell the drone how to fly, it launches, takes the images and comes back. It’s efficient and fast and gives you good quality data.”

The Sensors

For now, DLR flies optic and infrared cameras on the drone, Prahl said, but they’re also interested in adding gas detectors. These sensors would identify any leaks from the transfer fluid system. They’re looking at various models now and hope to find one that’s not only sensitive enough to detect oil leaks, but that can also easily be deployed on the drone.

“These solar plants use heat transfer fluid. It’s what takes heat from the power plant to make it available in the power block to produce electricity, depending on the technology the plant is using,” Prahl said. “This is an organic oil you have pumping through the power plant. You can have leakages where this hot oil may get into the environment. It’s important to detect these leakages as early as possible.”

Why Microdrones

When DLR first began researching systems, they wanted a drone that featured a long-endurance time, that could carry 1 kilogram of payload and that offered automatic waypoint navigation. The Microdrones system checked all those boxes, but the company was also attractive because of its global presence, Prahl said.

One of the main challenges DLR faces in deploying UAS technology to inspect solar panel stations is the different regulations they must adhere to in every country they work in, Prahl said. While they have the necessary permissions to fly in Spain, that doesn’t carry over to other solar plants around the world that could benefit from this technology.

“The solution is to have a drone provider or drone company that has a worldwide presence,” Prahl said. “A UAS service provider in the country where you want to work.”

Microdrones also provides excellent customer service, Prahl said, and he knows he can turn to them if he ever needs guidance.

“We have continuously used their products and services since about 2010,” Prahl said. “We’ve bought two drones from them but also have been able to upload firmware and update payloads. We can call to check new functionality and how it will impact the drone. Microdrones has very good service after the sale; they are happy to help with questions, training and support.”

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