Could government agencies benefit from drones?

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COLUMBIA - The Missouri Department of Transportation and contractor Wilson and Company postponed aerial mapping of I-70 on Thursday because of weather. 

While postponing the flyover did not impact the cost of the project, MoDOT said 3D mapping of an 800 foot wide, five and a half mile stretch of I-70 will cost nearly $115,000.

"We describe the deliverable data we want, and that is the survey data for this section of roadway," said Travis Koestner, Assistant Engineer of the MoDOT Central District. "Wilson and Company then delivers the electronic data to us, and we can then use it as we work with our industry partners."

Koestner said the data is made up of geographic elevations in the area, tied to GPS coordinates. 

Despite the technical nature of the data, some people claim the cost of the data collection could be much lower. 

"I think government agencies could benefit from drones," said Adam Weber, a digital media manager with The Evoke Group in Columbia. "UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] are very affordable in relation to using helicopters."

UAVs range in price, anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $15,000. Weber acknowledged there are some situations where helicopters are far superior, like cases of life-flighting, but he said a UAV could accomplish the same aerial mapping goals at a much lower cost. 

"The initial cost of the drone is really the only one associated," Weber said. ""UAVs run on rechargeable battery operated systems instead of using extremely costly and inefficient jet fuel."

For now, Koestner said it is more efficient to bid out aerial mapping projects to private industry, and MoDOT isn't likely to use funds on unmanned drones. 

A representative from Wilson and Company said the group would be interested in using drones if FAA regulations would allow them and technology continues to improve.

"These [drone] systems are showing a lot of promise when combined with sound photogrammetric principles," said Derek Smith, a Geospatial and Remote Sensing specialist with Wilson and Company. "I believe that adding this technology to the toolbox will provide a more cost effective approach to certain types of projects."

"Using a helicopter to retrieve photos or video of land or evaluate property, a UAV would be just as successful at retrieving that information and be very affordable," Weber said. "UAVs could also get it done faster, and it would save a lot of taxpayer dollars."

Weber said the industry is moving away from the term "UAV" and "drone," and toward the term UAS, or Unmanned Aircraft, or Aerial, Systems.

Koestner said he's not sure if MoDOT will ever own UAS technology. 

"Right now it's private industry," Koestner said. "MoDOT does not own this type of equipment and we don't look to own this type of equipment."

The MoDOT mapping flyover will take place on Saturday, September 13.