Autonomous 3D mapping drone improves speed of asset surveys Thursday, 25 May 2017

UNSW Engineering researchers have developed an autonomous 3D mapping drone that effectively reduces surveying times in the construction industry from weeks to hours, with potential applications in disaster-recovery efforts.

The engineers from UNSW worked with Linke & Linke Surveys to develop the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) which uses spinning Light detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology in order to deliver fast and accurate 3D maps of targeted areas and features.

The small UAV weighs about 12 kg, and is able to travel for periods of up to 18 minutes above any terrain in order to deliver data from 30,000 reference points per second, in real time.

Potential applications of such surveying technology include large construction projects, where the task of measuring stockpile volumes results in long waits and high costs.

The short flight time is not an issue, because after a 10 minute flight, the UAV is capable of providing a point cloud that covers the available site.

According to Linke & Line Surveys director James Linke, using UAVs to capture data reduced both the times and costs associated with the task. With a job that has three or four kilometres of stockpiles, a single person would have taken five to 10 days to make accurate measurements.

"Now it can be done in 10 minutes, and you have the data ready to use instantaneously," he said. "The cost savings would be in the region of 3,000 per cent, compared with a job being done by one person."

"This technology is going to dramatically change the way construction is done in Australia."

UNSW incubator program TechConnect, which is funded by the NSW Department of Industry's $12 million Boosting Business Innovation Program, has recognised the merits of the project, and awarded it with a $15,000 grant.

While the UAV is still at the prototype stage, the engineers see many applications beyond the construction accuracy. These include asset mapping, there the UAV-LiDAR technology will be able to assess with centimetre accuracy where specific features or items might be. Energy companies auditing power lines, for example, would find this to be invaluable. The surveying applications may also extend to the mining industry.

According to research leader Dr Johnson Xuesong Shen, Lecturer from UNSW's School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the UAV could help the coal-mining industry keep its workers safe.

"We have a research project at the moment looking at the safety of open-pit coal mining," Dr Shen said. "[With the UAV] we can map out the high wall, do some analysis and figure out the risk of collapse."