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North Dakota county puts drone to work for stockpile measurements

MINOT, N.D. -- Drone technology is making certain tasks safer and easier for the Ward County Highway Department.

The department acquired an Unmanned Aerial System device primarily for use in measuring stockpiled road materials, such as gravel and millings. The Ward County Commission approved guidelines proposed by the department for use of the UAS on Aug. 21, and the department began using the device at the end of August.

"The main purpose is safety for employees when they are measuring stockpiles," County Engineer Dana Larsen said. Measuring gravel piles from the ground is time consuming and hazardous, but other methods using airplanes or laser systems are expensive, he said. Accurate measurements are important in making purchases and maintaining inventory records.

"A secondary purpose would be if we ever had another disaster where you had damaged roads and bridges. You can quickly assess them and document them," Larsen said.

The department had been looking at getting a UAS for the past three or four years.

"We wanted to get to a point where we were comfortable," Larsen said of the department's patience in jumping into the technology. Cost also was an issue initially, but drones have become much more affordable. The department acquired its UAS for $2,031. The price includes a camera capable of taking overlapping photos – useful in measuring volumes– as well as extra batteries and an iPad mini for use as a controller.

Buzzing back and forth at 107 feet over a gravel stockpile recently, the UAS took 255 images in about a 12-minute flight. Ground measurements would have taken employees three to four hours.

In choosing to make use of UAS, the highway department opted to follow commercial-use guidelines of the Federal Aviation Administration. That means having a certified pilot and secondary observer and following rules related to height of flight and airport proximity.

The department has one employee who is certified, and the goal is to have a second employee complete the study and testing to also become certified. Individuals must re-certify every two years.

As a commercial operator, Ward County can fly drones up to about 400 feet. The guidelines approved by the commission require notification of any individuals who may be in or near the fly area. In measuring stockpiles, there is little likelihood of non-staff being present, but it might apply if a contractor crushing gravel happened to be in the area, Larsen said.