Aerial Surveying: An Elevated Perspective

Andy Mix
June 25, 2024

Quality Counts began exploring use cases for drones in 2016. Since then, we have identified several areas where they provide the most benefit to private firms and public count programs.

The centerpiece of aerial data collection, trajectory analysis, is a burgeoning capability for transportation applications made possible through the elevated vantage point drones offer. Automated video processing software is capable of tracking individual objects, frame-by-frame, as they execute complex movements.

Both the frame-by-frame object detection data and the resulting origin-destination data serve as a basis for a number of useful study types such as: parking studies, multi junction turning movement counts, origin-destination weave studies, vehicle behavioral analysis, and safety conflict analysis.

In order to safely collect video sufficient for trajectory analysis, data collectors must understand drone operations, hardware requirements, current FAA regulations, and how to properly scope and select deployment sites. More importantly, the critical public perception on drone use demands a comprehensive safety plan and adherence to strict permitting practices.

Aerial Data Collection

Aerial Surveying often offers more benefits than traditional methods. Some advantages over ground level cameras include:

• Trajectory Analysis – centerpiece of aerial data collection.  

• Elevated Vantage Point – allows us to film with bird’s eye view at 400ft

• No Obstructions or Glare - eliminates any obstructions and allows for immediate repositioning

• Can Yield Richer Data Sets

• Vehicle Tracking at Long Distances

• Less Intrusive

Drone Operations

Before flying any mission, all pilots must perform a pre-flight checklist to ensure that there are no issues with the equipment, environment, and airspace. It is also important to perform a post-flight inspection of the equipment for any damage or irregularities. Some examples of pre-flight checklist items are:

• IMU & Compass Calibration

• Firmware Updates

• Battery Inspection

• Prop Inspection

• Flight Restrictions/Airspace Clearance

• Signal Strength

• Environment - Animals, People, Air Traffic

Current FAA Regulations

A part 107 certification is required for a Pilot in Command to operate a drone for commercial purposes. Some of the FAA regulations include:

• No flying higher than 400 feet

• No flying within 500 ft of cloud cover (below) and 2000 ft of cloud cover (horizontally)

• No flying over people or moving vehicles

• No transporting dangerous or illegal substances

• No flying in National Parks or Preserves

• No intentionally disturbing or harassing wildlife

• No flying near prisons or military installations

While scoping a project, the first order of business should always be to verify if the location you will be flying is in controlled airspace and what other flight restrictions may apply. To do this, you can use "Kittyhawk" or a similar flight mapping application. Once you have selected the appropriate project location via map, you will be informed of the airspace classification and any other flight restrictions that currently exist within your planned flight route. If the airspace is clear, and there are no other permanent or temporary restrictions, you may proceed with the flight.  

If the location is in controlled airspace, you will be required to apply for airspace authorization from the FAA before flying. There are two ways to use LAANC (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability):

1. To receive a near real-time authorization for operations under 400 feet in controlled airspace around airports.

2. To submit a "further coordination request" if you need to fly above the designated altitude ceiling in a UAS Facility Map, up to 400 feet. Applicants may apply up to 90 days in advance of a flight and the approval is coordinated manually through the FAA.

LAANC is available at 726 airports. If you want to fly in controlled airspace near airports not offering LAANC, you can use the manual process to apply for an authorization. You can submit a LAANC authorization request through the “Kittyhawk” app. You will simply need to enter information about the flight (center location, date/time of flight, & altitude of your intended flight). It can take up to 90 days to receive approval/denial, so plan accordingly.

Once airspace has been addressed and approved, ALWAYS make sure to visit your site early to scout your launching point and look for potential obstructions. Once you have cleared this, you will want to proceed with your pre-flight checklist and take your drone up for a test run to make sure the drone is operating correctly. Be sure to run through your pre-flight checklist again on the day of the actual flight.

Andy Mix
As Director of Operations for the South East, Andy Mix manages projects across the states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Andy manages all aspects of traffic data collection projects including creating estimates, determining proper collection methods, managing field technicians, data QA/QC, and data delivery. Andy has extensive experience both in the office and in the field, making his collection recommendations practical and appropriate in a variety of traffic scenarios.