Illinois emergency managers wouldn't accept this as proof of flood inundation levels, so local officials are working to make drone footage acceptable verification technology.
Lake County Stormwater Management Commission Illinois emergency managers wouldn't accept this as proof of flood inundation levels, so local officials are working to make drone footage acceptable verification technology.

In the Chicago area, where I live and work, more and more public agencies are buying drones. Prices have dropped and getting a pilot’s license is easier. However, like any program involving new technology, the public, and multiple jurisdictions, surveyors are learning by doing. Drones are a great way to trim labor costs and keep employees out of harm’s way if you can use the data they gather. In Illinois, local-agency adoption is outpacing that of state agencies. I wouldn’t be surprised if public agencies in other states are running into similar issues.

The Lake County Stormwater Management Commission was created in 1991 to join 80 jurisdictions in a single cohesive effort to enhance natural drainage, reduce flood damage, and improve water quality within 444 square miles. Armed with an annual budget of almost $3 million, 18 full-time employees work to meet this goal.

During floods, they provide rainfall reports and other data that emergency responders use in deciding which roads to close, where to sandbag, and do anything else necessary to keep people safe and property from damage. GIS analysts Jeff Laramy, GISP, and Neil Schindelar got the commission’s first drone two days before the heaviest rain in county history hit. Perfect timing for testing their theories about the technology’s benefits.

Passing a Publicly Acceptable Ordinance
They’d been looking into implementing a drone program for at least a year. Ordinances outlining when and how the technology may be used have been problematic elsewhere, but Lake County’s experience was relatively painless. Laramy and Schindelar added language to Federal Aviation Administration’s 14 CFR Part 107 designed to reassure the public their intentions are good: “Can’t fly over private property without permission except in emergency, in which case we won’t fly low enough to see into buildings” (click here for the commission’s policy).

Schindelar, who’s 31, loves technology. While shopping, he looked for a “prosumer”-grade drone with:· 4K (4,000-pixel horizontal resolution) video and photography (higher resolution = sharper image)
· Adjustable camera (to change viewing angle as desired during flight)
· Collision detection
· GPS assistance (stabilizes drone and helps execute preprogrammed flight plans).

He bought DJI’s $1,400 Phantom 4 Pro, an entry-level professional 4K unit with forward, backward, and downward vision; front, rear, left, and right obstacle avoidance; 4.3-mile transmission distance; and a control app that streams video live to YouTube. The operating system can’t be reconfigured, so Schindelar controls the drone via apps on an Apple iPad Air 2: Pix4Dcapture to program flights and AirMap for flight notifications. The commission uses Esri’s Drone2Map for ArcGIS ($1,500 annual license) to process photographers into three-dimensional images.

“This might sound funny, but my experience playing video games made it easier to use two joysticks and 10 buttons to manipulate flight and camera settings,” he says. “Also, don’t get a drone if you don’t like to troubleshoot. They’re computers and, sometimes, you just have to reboot.”

Drone Assessment Vindicates Assumptions
It took Schindelar three hours and 35 flights to survey 20 square miles to verify that 2,767 properties surpassed the flood inundation level.

“Drone footage confirmed water levels and our inundation mapping accuracy,” he says. “In most cases, water was where we predicted it’d be, which meant our data was sound and that we didn’t need to suit up in waders and start walking through floodwaters to verify our preliminary damage assessment. Sadly, the footage didn’t fit the Illinois Emergency Management Agency’s (IEMA) requirement for damage assessment, so crews had to be sent out to some previously inaccessible areas to fill out the forms. That said, the flights streamlined their workflow because we’d documented what we saw, what structures were affected, and where on the roads the water reached, so they were able correlate that data to the structures on the ground.”

The county’s Planning, Building & Development Department plans to work with state officials to make drone data acceptable for damage assessment efforts.

In the Meantime, Other Applications
Drone use by public agencies has exploded since we first wrote about the technology in 2014. You’re using them to monitor dam health, design and build roads, and assess hurricane damage.

All Lake County departments have access to the stormwater commission’s drone. DOT Planning Department Project Manager Darrell Kuntz, PE, had Schindelar fly a street-widening project. “You can say, “This is what’s going to happen,’ but it’s easier for people to grasp large projects if they can see it.” Click here for before-and-after video.

“The more we use it, the more uses we find,” Schindelar says.