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Taking off in Tassie

Ben Ritchie is a surveyor with a difference: having taken a 10-year hiatus from working with the land to work in the sky as a commercial pilot, he recently returned to the surveying industry with a view to combining his skills and leading the way for Veris’ aerial mapping services.

Veris, known until November last year as OTOC, was formed from eight businesses joined by a vision to create a world-class planning, design, surveying and spatial solutions business that could service clients across Australia.

Lester Franks is a 35-strong team based in Devonport, Tasmania, that specialises in delivering clients comprehensive surveying services that incorporate the latest technology.

3D laser scanners, sonar and more recently drones complement traditional survey methods and give us the ability to map a complete environment by air, water and land,” Mr Ritchie said.

Survey drones up efficiency

Far from replacing traditional survey technology, Mr Ritchie argues these tools simply open the door to more projects and enable surveyors to achieve more with their time.

Survey drones and scanning systems make field crews more efficient and they allow us to survey areas that are too inaccessible, dangerous or large to survey on foot,” he said.

The coverage drones are getting in the media, across all industries, also helps the cause. “We often get customers requesting a drone survey, and even if that might not be the best solution for their particular project, it still brings more work our way and through discussion with the client we can give them the right service for their needs,” he said.

Recently, the team in Tasmania undertook type training on the MAVinci Sirius Pro fixed wing and Falcon 8 multi-rotor Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). Veris-owned Whelans has been working with a similar solution in Western Australia with great success, so Lester Franks was eager to do the same.

“Our colleagues at Whelans use their MAVinci Sirius Pro almost daily as they work on large, open sites throughout WA,” he said. “In Tassie, the landscape is different and often a multi-rotor system such as the Falcon 8 is ideal for tighter spaces, so we decided to get trained up in both systems so we have the flexibility to fly either to suit the job at hand.”

Two experts from Australian distributor Position Partners completed the training with Lester Franks. “I have to say the team at Position Partners has been fantastic – very knowledgeable, passionate and helpful,” Mr Ritchie said.

Fixed wing or multi-rotor?

The fixed wing and multi-rotor drones are excellent in different ways, Mr Ritchie explained. “The AscTec has more versatility to fly in small spaces and to complete video monitoring projects, whereas the Sirius is ideal for broadacre and mining applications.”

“I’ve been very impressed with both aircraft,” he continued. “The Falcon 8 is an extremely stable platform and the triple redundancy it has on-board is very reassuring. We recently completed a video monitoring project on the underside of a bridge that was over water, so in situations like that it’s great to use a drone that you can rely as crash landing wasn’t an option!”

The stability of the MAVinci Sirius Pro also impressed Mr Ritchie. “Although I haven’t had an opportunity to use it on a project yet, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it coped with very poor weather conditions during our training,” he said. “It was a testament to the confidence Position Partners has in the system that they even let the training go ahead, I had assumed we wouldn’t have been able to fly in gusty wind conditions but we did and the system performed very well.”

The Sirius Pro features RTK ground control via a GNSS base station and on-board GNSS antenna, enabling high precision mapping without the need to set out ground control points.

Lester Franks uses Pix4D and Agisoft software to process and analyse the data sets from RPAS flights. “The point cloud is the most valuable part of the process and its here that the benefits of adding surveying skills to advanced technology such as drones really come into play,” Mr Ritchie said.

The importance of surveyors

Rather than replace the need for surveyors, Mr Ritchie argues that a surveyor’s expertise has never been more important when it comes to drone surveys. “The aircraft is really just a vehicle to lift a camera into the air and take a series of photographs,” he said. “Anyone can learn to fly a drone, but it is only when you mix the photos with the professional skills of a licensed surveyor who knows how to verify accuracy and implement ground control properly that it becomes a viable surveying tool.”

Mr Ritchie is excited about the rapid advancement of technology in this space and what the next few years will bring. “Everyone is in a constant state of catch up at the moment as every six to 12 months the technology shifts up another few gears, but I think the availability of on-board LIDAR will be a real game-changer as we won’t need to post process photos and it will just be a case of downloading a completed point cloud straight off the plane at the end of the flight,” he said.

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