Technology is constantly changing and influencing how we design. One technology in particular will significantly improve how we gather, present and process information. Drones or UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are quickly becoming the next tool that every landscape architect should be aware of. Drones have already become established as analytical devices in agriculture, photographic platforms in cinematography, and marketing tools in real-estate, all features that would be beneficial for the profession of landscape architecture.
Currently consumer level drones are marketed as photographic platforms that can boast 4K video and 12 megapixel cameras all stabilized on a controllable gimbal. This combination of technology allows beginner level users to obtain professional level material that would otherwise require a helicopter or airplane. That material, whether it be video or stills can then be applied to a variety of uses in a project. There are a variety of products on the market but DJI currently dominates the consumer drone arena. Their products range from the compact DJI Mavic which can fold into the size of a shoe easily fitting in any bag to the Dji Inspire which boasts powerful motors and impressive photography capabilities. We own a DJI Phantom 3 which is a balance between the portability and camera capabilities of the Mavic and Inspire.
The most obvious use of a drone is for obtaining aerial photos for context imagery and rendering purposes. A drone provides the user with live video feed from the camera allowing for the capture of exactly the angle and direction needed for a specific rendering. An example of this would be an aerial “before and after” photo of a park design.
When a landscape architect is observing the construction phase of a design it may be useful to gain a series of aerial views over time. A drone allows the designer to take flyovers and inspect the site in real time allowing mistakes or potential problems to be identified immediately. An example of this would be a landscape architect taking a flyover of a large hazardous project site and noticing that the construction has been compacting top soil. With the drone the designer can identify a problem quickly and safely to then find a solution.
The GPS and satellite features of the drone provide live video streaming from the camera to internet users. This enables real time aerial site tours to be given to consultants and stakeholders around the globe. For example, an employee could be flying over a site in San Francisco while the landscape architect, developers, architects, and others watch from around the world during a conference call. This ability enhances the design process and opens up great new opportunities for collaboration, discussion, and inspiration.
In some cases, a landscape architect may need a quick site survey and not have the time or budget to hire an engineer or surveyor. With a drone it is possible to take high quality photos of the site and overlay Autocad line work.
However, the true benefit comes with the combination of an app like Dronedeploy®. Dronedeploy® is a program that combines GPS coordinates and site images to stitch together a 3D interpretation of the space in a process called photogrammetry which is exactly how Google earth/maps accomplished its 3D mapping. This allows a designer create real time 3D scans of a site that can then be exported to programs like Rhino for 3D modeling or AutoCad for a contour mapping that is within 2% accuracy of traditional surveying methods.
Site analysis is a time when image gathering and detailed examination of a space is critical. A drone allows the user to gather high quality images that would otherwise be overly expensive and impractical to obtain. With the ability to fly, a designer can get any shot needed despite site topography, property lines, or any other barrier issues. With the drone and software combination it is possible to create scientific level evaluations of site vegetation with NDVI maps (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index). Such images show levels and variety of photosynthetic material on a site and provide information about existing plant communities. For example the implementation of NDVI could be used to map out an invasive species in a river ecosystem to inform a designer how to halt its spreading.
Another use of the drone in a site analysis situation would be creating a 3D model of the site to calculate accurate volumetric measurements of cut and fill.
When a project site is completed it may be required for a landscape architect to perform a post occupancy evaluation to assure their design is living up to client and user expectations. Using a drone would give the designer the ability to observe and analyze elements of the site that may not be visible from eye level. A stationary aerial time-lapse could also be made to record movements and usage of a space.
In addition a drone can be used to document a completed project for marketing purposes or award submission. The highly detailed images from the drone are obvious benefits, but the ability to 3D scan a site would add another level to the documentation process. An example of marketing with a drone would be to create an aerial video montage of completed projects to post on a webpage or share with future clients.
With the arrival of new technologies it is important that designers learn to apply them to their best abilities to stay relevant and competitive in today’s market. The possibilities shown here are just the beginning of what will become a future of drone aided design.