Innovation

Autonomous drones map historic landmark, could save construction industry billions

Autodesk and 3D Robotics partnered with the city and county of Denver to map the historic landmark with an autonomous drone that delivers data to the cloud.

Image: Autodesk

A park as big as Red Rocks is hard to take in all at once. Red Rocks, which is located outside of Denver, Colorado, is a roughly 600-acre property that's home to the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater.

But thanks to a project from Autodesk, 3D Robotics, Kimley-Horn, and the city and county of Denver, it's possible to get a good look from above at the outdoor venue, as well as about half the acreage, with all its rock formations.

The companies created a 3D digital model of the area and, using a new platform called Solo and a product called Site Scan, created an automated system for capturing data using drones, that requires no drone expertise to run.

"It's literally a push button process, the drone takes off automatically, goes and captures that data that you need based on selecting an area on a map of what data that you need and what resolution you'd like, it goes and flies the site, and then comes back and lands," said Autodesk's Tristan Randall.

The pictures are pretty, but the aesthetics aren't the sole point.

When the drone lands, the data captured gets uploaded to the cloud where it can be used to create things like 2D aerial maps and 3D models like surface meshes, all geo-located.

Randall said that, while they're still in demonstration phase with the software, the goal is data turnaround in about 24 hours.

"It means we can have very recent, high resolution data available to engineering and construction professionals, literally within a matter of hours," he said.

"The advantage of having all this done automatically is that the entire process from planning the mission, operating the drone, and getting to usable data for engineering and construction applications, that process is essentially completely autonomous," Randall said.

It's a step forward for drones in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry (AEC).

Applications for something like this run the gamut.

On a broad level, Randall said this project was a technology valuation for the city and county of Denver. The city is growing, and that includes infrastructure. This project could help them understand how else it could be used as the city develops.

"Red Rocks was a great use case because it presented all these unique challenges for this type of technology... you've got this mixture of natural and manmade features, rugged terrain, and dramatic elevation changes," Randall said.

More specifically, all that data can be helpful for planning projects like roadway improvements, drainage analyses, and monitoring things like changes in landscape or the condition of the trail system across the park. They can also use the data for emergency planning, as well as conservation and preservation efforts.

And, in a less dire vein, the data can be used for digital simulation— things like digital effects in films, or putting together lighting simulations. Every time an event comes through Red Rocks, lighting designs have to be approved by one of the engineers at the city and county, so using the data to play out different lighting scenarios could be helpful for all involved.

Randall also hopes that drone technology like this will make a bigger impact on the construction industry, an industry that's typically high waste, low productivity, and low margin.

"If you look at what drones are capable of doing, they can reduce the cost and time of surveying and mapping tasks," Randall said. And, that's a good thing. In 2016, in the US, there will be more than $1 trillion spent on construction. "Even a very small improvement in productivity translates to billions of dollars in savings," he said.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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