Nacogdoches company's drones help survey hurricane damage

Published on Thursday, 2 November 2017 17:41 - Written by JOSH EDWARDS, Daily Sentinel

NACOGDOCHES (AP) - Unmanned aircraft helped a Nacogdoches business survey hurricane damage with a degree of speed and safety once thought impossible.

The Daily Sentinel reports after Hurricane Harvey battered the Texas coast and Hurricane Irma swamped Florida, Hydrex Environmental set to the air with drones not much bigger than a model airplane to map damage.

"We were able to access inaccessible areas as part of a study to determine whether emergency response was necessary. Some of these facilities were landfills and industrial sites that received significant flooding from the hurricanes," said Clayton Collier, senior environmental scientist at Hydrex.

Before drone technology, surveys of large flooded sites would have taken weeks. Crews would not have been able to begin until floodwaters receded significantly.

Collier pointed to a landfill survey in Florida after Irma where a half million dollar tarp was destroyed. The giant tarp was meant to keep water from leeching through garbage in the landfill but it was no match for Irma.

The drone was able to create a high-resolution aerial map and topographic survey of the flooded area. The collected data is sent to the Hydrex headquarters on U.S. 59 in almost an instant. There high-tech software stitches the photos together.

"Getting boots on the ground that would have taken two or three weeks at least, instead you get a 48-hour turn around," Collier said.

No one had to step foot in the flooded area to get a quick survey.

"We're able to do it from a remote site. From a safety standpoint that's huge. You don't have to wait or try to get back around behind the property," Collier said.

The state-of-the-art technology uses only high resolution photographs to create detailed maps and three-dimensional models of areas.

"There's no signal being beamed out," Collier said.

Traditionally aerial surveys used a resolution of one meter - about 3 feet - per pixel. With current drone technology, Hydrex can get a resolution of 1 inch per pixel.

"They're never straight down," he said of the photos. "The wind catches it and pushes the drone off to the side, but the software takes all these pictures, and based on pixel recognition it matches them up. It's really cool stuff."

The company has contracts across Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma where they survey everything from wastewater treatment facilities to asphalt plants.

"Anything with land has a potential for drone usage," Collier said.

Hydrex established its drone division in 2015, and the company has been in business for more than 20 years.

"Maps are an integral part of every project that we work on," Collier said. "We have a really advanced GIS mapping division, so it just made sense to add the drone division as part of that. We don't use drones on every project but it is a tool we can use on any project."

All drone pilots have to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, although President Donald Trump recently issued a memo announcing some exemptions to current safety rules.

Collier said he's looking forward to increasing the size of the drone fleet at Hydrex.

"I'm looking at some really good technology to take it to the next level," he said.