Store Your Drone Properly
BY Sandy Lender
Way back in the May 2016 issue of AsphaltPro, we discussed what was an emerging use of drone technology to document projects and gather valuable data. That technology has expanded since then with both software and small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) developing easier methods of procuring data and more robust training for operators. Today, you can’t attend a construction-related conference without at least one presenter offering insight for the use of drone technology. In fact, at the 2018 World of Asphalt and AGG1 conference in Houston, Matthew Riggle, the operations manager for Bluegrass Testing, Louisville, and Brian Wood, the executive director of Plantmix Asphalt Industry of Kentucky (PAIKY), joined forces to share tips and tricks with the audience about their experiences and learning curves with the tech.
At this time, discussion on proper storage is sparse. It’s almost time to shut down the plants and quarries around North America, and it won’t do to plop the drone and its battery onto a shelf in hopes that all will be great come April or May. To make sure this vital component in your volumetrics and data-gathering arsenal is in top shape next spring, let’s include it in a proper shutdown routine.
Gather Final Counts
As vertically integrated mix production sites and quarries prepare for winter shutdown, you want to capture final data for the year. A spokesperson for Stockpile Reports shared that you’re performing a final count to ensure solid data for off-season business planning.
Riggle said: “This is really no different than any other time you collect data. Our main concern waiting until the piles will be static before we perform any winter collection. One thing to keep in mind would be the decreased battery life for drones in colder weather due to reduced battery efficiency, although newer drones are better at accurately displaying battery life than previous models. You may need to adjust your flight plan some. One tip: keep the batteries in a warmer environment such as the car or a building right up until they are needed.”
The team at Trimble, Sunnyvale, California, also spoke about end-of-season planning and efficiency when it comes to that last drone flight.
“Having a clear understanding of aggregate stockpile volumes is essential for vertically integrated contractors going into a winter (or shutdown) season,” Devin Laubhan said. He’s the paving product manager for Trimble’s civil engineering and construction division.
“Determinations must be made on when to end crushing operations for a season so that planned maintenance can be scheduled and performed on the crusher and accessory systems, while still maintaining inventory stockpiles for sales throughout the winter. Capturing accurate volumes of stockpiles by flying it with a drone, then applying the correct density factor of that material to calculate tonnages, can help a producer capture current inventory volumes to make sound business decisions going into a shutdown period. These business decisions can include maintaining minimum inventory quantities for forecasted sales volumes during a crusher shutdown, or possibly adjusting inventory levels (writing off stockpile losses) before the end of the fiscal year.”
You don’t have to limit yourself to a final count in December, of course. Jason Nichols, product marketing manager of Kespry, Menlo Park, California, suggested a way to keep your options open.
“Every drone solution has surface analysis capabilities that vary depending on the platform’s application,” Nichols said. “Some factors to consider when performing baseline flights are what is the level of accuracies desired, how many acres do I want to cover, how much data post-processing work do I want to do, and how often can I perform flights in the off-season. A suggestion would be to use a single solution platform that allows you to fly as often as needed without requiring a significant amount of data handling or processing but still delivers survey-grade accuracies. Off season baselines should not be restrictive to a single data source as site conditions may change or spot checks may come up.”
Jim Greenberg, UAS and landfill product manager for Trimble’s civil engineering and construction division, also reminded readers that mid-winter flights can capture good information: “It’s also important to note that in mild climates—or even on mild days in colder climates—winter can be an ideal time to operate a drone because bare trees often provide a less obstructed view of the ground below.”
Shut Down and Store
For the officer in charge of the drone fleet, keeping that fleet in prime condition is a top priority. Don’t let winter downtime corrode parts or cause problems for spring startup. Riggle put emphasis on the battery first: “Some store better with most of their power discharged; refer to the manufacturer’s suggestions.”
Riggle also discussed housing. “Keep all hardware and devices in a controlled environment; don’t leave them at a satellite facility with power turned off.”
The team at Stockpile Reports also mentioned the battery power, and listed these steps specifically:
- Do a safety inspection of each of the drones in your fleet, making a list of any repairs or replacements needing to be performed.
- Make sure each drone’s firmware is up to date with the latest version.
- Make sure to discharge your batteries to between 40 to 65 percent, then store them unplugged in a fireproof container, such as a Lipo-bag, in a cool room.
- Once your equipment is stored, conduct a review of how your flight program went this year, considering what changes you might need to make for the coming year (eg., more frequent flights, whether to look at outsourcing some of your flights, and analyzing the ROI of the cost of your drone operations).
Trimble’s Greenberg spoke about battery storage specifically. He shared that it’s desirable to remove the batteries and store the drone in a cool, dry place. Here are the specific tips he offered for battery storage:
- For prolonged storage periods, store discharged [i.e. 2.0 to 3.0 volts per cell] and at -20 to 25oC (standard Li Ion storage standards). Storing a battery with full power or low power for a long time may lead to permanent damage.
- Some chargers should have a “storage” setting that will drip current and drain to 70 percent if fully charged.
- Set a reminder for every two to three weeks to check battery levels.
As the winter season winds down, prepare your equipment to come out of hibernation. Greenberg offered the following steps before resuming operations:
- Fully inspect all hardware components.
- On the batteries, look for no corrosion, no swelling of case or cells.
- On the drone itself, you want to make sure there is no damage to camera, gimbal, rotors, propellers, battery bay or other key components.
- Do a visual inspection of the controller to make sure there are no cracks or breaks and that the antennas are intact.
- Update all firmware to reflect the latest versions available. Chances are a new release has come out while the drone has been in storage.
- Run a test flight before an actual mission with batteries fully charged to test all hardware components.
Continue Your Education
The off-season offers plenty of opportunity for workers to train and hone skills. Your sUAS education included.
Riggle shared: “Drone Pilot Ground School has a lot of resources for training in various areas associated with UAVs. The biggest thing would be to keep up with the need for potential airspace waver requests and submit those to the FAA as early as possible. Additionally, research all of the airspace restrictions in your area; local knowledge can be a huge asset to you.”
The team at Stockpile Reports discussed the importance of incorporating your drone program into future planning during this offseason. “Take courses on business optimization and enterprise resource planning. The more you can translate flight outputs and data to business value the more successful you and your drone program will be in the coming year. Consider the answers your company is trying to uncover with the data you are providing with your drone program, and see how you can best answer those questions with analysis on top of your drone flight data.”
Kespry’s Nichols reminded readers to catch up on what they may have missed during the busy construction season. “During the busy season it’s easy to miss new features or product improvements that were released by your drone solution provider. Reach out to your customer success department to watch missed webinars or review documents on new features that may have been implemented to date. It’s also recommended to review industry insights through online publications or drone solution providers’ resource pages.”
Trimble’s Greenberg suggested expanding the team during this optimal training time. “For companies in milder climates, the off-season is the perfect time to train more employees on how to fly the drones and what they can do with drone data. This is a great time for more team members to work on their Part 107 drone certification and to practice the survey workflow for when the weather improves. Flying during the off-season also helps users become more comfortable with the capabilities and setting of the drones they will be using during the construction season.”
Quick Legal Reminders
There’s an app for that! Several years ago, FAA released the “B4UFLY” smartphone app. Check it out at faa.gov/uas.
“Unless you are flying only for hobby or recreational purposes, you will need FAA authorization via a Section 333 grant of exemption to fly your unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for your business. This applies even if you are only flying to supplement or aid your business and not charging fees for doing so. For further information regarding the FAA’s interpretation of ‘hobby or recreational’ flying, please see the FAA’s Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft” here.
File for your exemption here.
When filing for your 333 exemption, you will get a full education on regulations to which you must adhere when flying sUAS for commercial/business purposes. Keep in mind, common sense prevails. The asphalt company’s new drone is a tool for enhancing your marketing or data management points. Treat it as you would any other government-regulated device and you’ll steer clear of fines—and actual prison time—that would otherwise mitigate its positive effect on your business.