Drone survey gives Ports of Indiana a high-accuracy business upgrade

For 30 years, the Chicago-based survey firm SPACECO has been providing comprehensive civil engineering and surveying services to enhance road, building, and a range of infrastructure projects in the US Midwest. About five years ago, Brian Kravets, SPACECO’s IT (and now UAS operations) manager became interested in drones. He asked if he could try bringing them into some of SPACECO’s workflows. His supervisor was open, and the rest is history.

“Drones have really bolstered how we handle jobs. They add value to typical topographic surveys as well as enable more services, because we do things faster than we did before,” Kravets said. “We’re a smaller company than a lot of our competitors in the area, but not all of them use drones. So this has been a way to stand out here in a pretty crowded market.”

SPACECO’s reputation attracted the attention of the Ports of Indiana (Indiana’s port authority), which hired them to survey their three major ports along Lake Michigan and the Ohio River. The ports are industrial sites for the import and export of grain, coal, steel, and a range of other materials. These survey sites together measured 3000 ac (1200 ha) and featured a lot of complex as well as inaccessible terrain.

Competitive market for survey firms, rough terrain, confidentiality barriers for land survey, large areas, budget considerations for port authority to get regular site updates

The client had been getting high-res imagery from airplanes for years. We told them what we could do with WingtraOne because of its high resolution and quick turnaround for aerials at a much lower cost. And they were very interested in our product.

Brian Kravets 
UAS Operations Manager, SPACECO

3 ports, 3000 acres (1200 ha), 0.6 in (1.5 cm) accuracy in 3 days

WingtraOne with port survey outputs
Flying with the RX1R II PPK payload at an altitude of 400 ft (121 m), and with a GSD setting of 0.5 in (1.3 cm), SPACECO was able to provide 0.6 in (1.5 cm) absolute accuracy across all three surveys thanks to WingtraOne. Note: accuracy figure refers to horizontal, with vertical accuracy measuring 1.5 in (3.8 cm).

A new bottom line with fast, detailed drone industrial surveys

Kravets spent one day at each port to capture the data with WingtraOne. In total—including processing time—he was able to provide the final product to the State of Indiana in a week. Flying with WingtraOne’s RX1R II payload and multi-frequency PPK unit saved him the time laying ground control points, as WingtraOne PPK only requires a few checkpoints to verify data accuracy.

All of this data so fast is much more cost-effective than hiring an airplane. And surveying all three ports would have taken about a month with a field crew, Kravets estimated. In fact, he said SPACECO likely wouldn’t have taken this project on as a ground-based survey.

When asked if he could have done it with other drones besides WingtraOne, Kravets said no. Fixed-wings, he said, land in a controlled crash and can damage themselves if the landing spot is not perfectly suited. And for projects larger than 50 acres (20 ha) he won’t consider using a multicopter, because it would cost too much time, which would eat directly into profits.

“If I were to try to do this project with a DJI Inspire 2, or any conventional multirotor drone, it would have cost a couple weeks worth of flying to capture 3000 acres (1200 ha). Instead, I was able to do it in three days, so that’s a significant amount of time saved.”

Brian Kravets with WingtraOne
Kravets and WingtraOne.

In addition to cost, the airplane-based aerials lack the same resolution that flying with the WingtraOne gives our client. Specifically, I was able to provide 0.6 inch (1.5 cm) absolute accuracy over this entire survey area. Aerial-wise, we couldn’t do this without drones.

Brian Kravets
UAS Operations Manager, SPACECO

Field time and data capture cost for a 3000 ac (1200 ha) industrial land survey


illustration WingtraOne

Multirotor drone

illustration multirotor

Terrestrial methods

illustration survey tripod

All figures are estimates and do not include post-processing and final output costs. Estimates are based on a 1,500 USD per day charge by the survey company. 

Seeing more revenue opportunities with clear drone data

When they saw the quality of the WingtraOne data and the level of detail, the client was so impressed that they discussed investing in biennial survey updates with SPACECO. This way, they could keep on top of business that they couldn’t track before. Specifically, the ports are partitioned into zones that are rented out to tenants who use them as storage.

“Sometimes tenants would store materials that were spilling out of their property. Using these aerials, our client is hoping to better enforce land usage among the tenants. If the tenant was using more acreage than they paid for, the port authority could show proof, which adds up to a lot more money when you put all the spaces together.”

Because of the high quality of the mapping outputs, the port authority can also use them to market unoccupied plots more effectively. This is because WingtraOne’s high-resolution drone data enables clear visualization of where each place sits related to key infrastructure, like roadways, railways and waterways.

The port authority is also using the aerials for coordinating maintenance for all the facilities, Kravets said. It’s revolutionizing their operations, because they can now see damage in great detail without having to manually walk all of these hundreds of acres on each site.

“They can look at a hundred acre storage yard and see where pavement might be failing,” he explained. “They can zoom in to see cracks in the pavement and the condition of a tin roof on a shed. The imagery is sharp and crisp and offers the information that’s necessary to make the decisions that they need to make.”

SPACECO provided services to the port authority at a competitive price in terms of both money and turnaround time for the project. Once the client saw the outputs and the possibilities that opened up, the value increased beyond what they were expecting. At the same time, WingtraOne saved SPACECO overhead while they maintained a sufficient profit margin.

WingtraOne drone data enables high-resolution, high-accuracy maps that allow exceptional detail visibility (see close-ups in above visuals). The Ports of Indiana will use theirs to assess all of ports, visually, for maintenance purposes, to market parcels and to monitor property boundary violations for enforcement and more accurate billing.

We charge based on the value of the data that we have the skills to extract for the customer, and not how long it takes us to do the survey. As the tech gets better, we get better, and we’re doing things faster and more efficiently with the WingtraOne than with a multirotor.

Brian Kravets
UAS Operations Manager, SPACECO 

WingtraOne and a truck in the field
Kravets said WingtraOne performs reliably even in the windy conditions of the Midwestern plains.

Safer and faster while offering "spot-on" accuracy

Even if a survey company were to take on the Ports of Indiana project with terrestrial methods, the coverage would have been impossible because of safety and security regulations.

“That’s a big part of why we use drones in general,” Kravets explained. “We’re able to fly sites that we wouldn’t want a field crew walking around in. Whereas with the drone I can cover hundreds and up to a few thousand acres and not have to enter these areas. The port authority actually said I wasn’t allowed to be in some areas, but they were okay with the drone flying over them.”

It helps that WingtraOne can fly higher and more efficiently while still providing high absolute accuracy. Kravets said he could fly at 400 ft (121 m) and cover the same amount of ground as flying other drones at 200 ft (60 m), which means nearly twice the coverage for the time. In terms of accuracy, he was able to produce the 0.6 in (1.5 cm) results without the need for ground control points (GCPs).

Because we’re a surveying company, we always do ground control, and we always run a double and a triple check. But we’re finding less and less need to because every time, WingtraOne data is just spot-on without having to use GCPs at all.

Brian Kravets 
UAS Operations Manager, SPACECO

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