St. Charles Parish was recently used as a testing ground by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a unmanned aircraft drone shot images of and around the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
The $30,000 “USACE eBee” drone allows the Corps to evaluate structures from an overhead perspective, with the overall goal of closely monitoring the levee system and protecting against any future failings.
The drones are being developed as part of the UAS program, that acronym standing for Unmanned Aircraft System.
Corps engineering technician Nick Meis said the spillway area was chosen to test the drone because the area yields little chance of an accident and the spillway is Corps property, allowing for easy clearanceBecause flight areas are subject to Army and FAA restrictions and approval, certain areas can take some time to earn clearance.
“We cannot operate these drones unless it’s cleared by the FAA to do so, and it’s a permitting process that takes a long time to do for every area,” Meis said. “We were able to get FAA clearance (quickly) there.”
The data the drone gathers can be processed to create a detailed three-dimensional model of the area, eventually helping to facilitate NY structural work necessary. The software allows the UAS pilot to monitor all aircraft telemetry in real time, including position, altitude, speed, pitch and roll. The system is capable of imaging over both visible and near-infrared spectrums.
Meis said that once the drones are released, it is fully autonomous — there is very little interaction between pilot and drone — the flight pattern can be programmed in before takeoff, with the drone following that route before eventually landing in the same spot it took off from.
“At the same time, if another aircraft is in the area, we can intervene,” he added. “It’s very advanced compared to previous models.”
Other cutting edge features include the drone’s direct access to GPS satellites and a thermal camera that can more accurately detect certain flaws, such as water seeping in between levees. The UAS makes it possible to inspect areas that may not be accessible by land.