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Drones and airports usually don’t mix, but perhaps that’s about to change.

This past summer, there was a small black quadcopter buzzing above the runways and around the control tower at Front Range Airport outside of Denver, Colorado, capturing high-resolution images without disrupting the day-to-day operations of the airport.

This was yet another sign that drones—with their safe, automated flight paths—can be successfully integrated into controlled airspace, presenting big opportunities for surveying and engineering firms eager to make use of them at airports across the country.

Look no further than Kimley-Horn, a large design and engineering consultancy, who collaborated with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to perform this one-of-a-kind drone survey at Front Range Airport.

The goal: fast, detailed as-built survey and pavement inspections at Front Range Airport

“We needed an as-built survey of the entire airport, including our 200 foot control tower, along with precise inspections of the runways to spot any cracks or deformations,” said Dave Ruppel, Airport Director at Front Range. “We normally don’t have this kind of information available to us, and we thought that drones would be able to quickly and easily help us collect it.”

While commercial drones have been flown at a US airport before, this would be the first time that they’ve been used at an active airport to capture pavement distresses on the runways, taxiway aprons, and landside areas.

Kimley-Horn has an established drone program and performs aerial surveys on projects across the country. They saw an opportunity at Front Range to use a drone to speed up surveying time and collect far more detailed data compared to traditional methods. “As-builts and pavement management surveys are typically very manual, and requires spending significant time in the field,” said Edwin Tamang, Civil Engineer at Kimley-Horn. “On this project, it took a couple of our seasoned engineers about 10-12 hours to walk up and down the runways and inspect 60-70 units, looking for cracks, distresses, and structural deformations.”

The Kimley-Horn team performing manual pavement inspections for cracks and deformities

Not only is this time-consuming, Edwin noted, but it also requires putting engineers in the middle of an active airport, where they have to be mindful of safety and other risks. Kimley-Horn was looking for a way to speed up that process and make it safer, so their engineers could spend less time in the field and focus on analyzing the data back at the office.

The solution: capturing Front Range with 3DR Site Scan

Kimley-Horn is a long-time user of 3DR Site Scan, having already put it to work on a variety of projects. “We’ve had a great relationship and partnership with 3DR,” said John Heiberger, Engineer and Project Manager at Kimley-Horn. “Site Scan is one of the leading products in the industry. It helps us turn hundreds of high-resolution photos into orthomosaics, point clouds, and more, which has a lot of value to our customers.”

Surveying at Front Range was a new opportunity—and challenge—for their drone operations team. It was crucial that Site Scan worked seamlessly within active airspace without disrupting ongoing activities.

“While flying Site Scan”, said Bobby Valentine, Project Visualization Lead at Kimley-Horn, “Our team was out on the tarmac and communicating directly with the control tower. We were treated no differently than a manned aircraft. If we needed to let a plane go by while we were flying Site Scan, we could hit pause right in the middle of the flight and the drone would stop in mid-air. Then, we could resume the mission whenever it was clear to continue.”

“The thing that impressed me most,” Dave Ruppel said, “was the lack of any issues out there. It was very controlled, efficient process.”

Flying Site Scan on the runways of Front Range Airport

Perimeter Scan and inspection photos of the control tower

Bobby and his team used Site Scan’s Perimeter Scan feature—which is perfect for capturing vertical structures and façades—to survey the 200 foot control tower and create a rich, accurate point cloud. “I was impressed with how quick the workflow was, from collecting the data, processing it, and presenting it in a modeled, viewable format,” Edwin said.

They also used Site Scan’s Inspect Mode feature, and manually flew around the tower taking high-resolution, geotagged photos. They were able to capture parts of the 200 foot tower that would be impossible to reach without a drone. Site Scan made it possible to inspect the tower in just minutes, while keeping the field team safe on the ground.

High-resolution inspection photo of the control tower, taken by Site Scan’s 20.1MP Sony R10C camera

Survey of runways with ground control points (GCPs)

Kimley-Horn then performed an aerial survey of the runways and taxiway aprons, using Site Scan’s autonomous flight modes to quickly and easily capture the area and automatically process them into maps and models. With 57 ground control points set around the airport, Kimley-Horn took advantage of Site Scan’s new cloud-based GCP processing and used each of these GCPs to increase the absolute accuracy of their deliverables.

Kimley-Horn set GCPs (shown in white) across Front Range and processed them in the cloud in Site Scan

Key results

1. Detailed, accurate as-built of Front Range Airport

3D point cloud of Front Range control tower

After flying and processing the data, Kimley-Horn provided a number of deliverables to the Front Range team, including orthophotos of the entire airport, point clouds, and inspection photos from hard-to-reach places. This data will have tremendous value to CDOT and Front Range going forward, helping them plan any changes or renovations to the airport with up-to-date existing conditions.

“Now, we have the ability to take this data and build off it,” Dave Ruppel said. “Whether it’s for runway extensions, taxiway rework, or something else, we now have this up-to-date as-built data on file. We don’t have to go back out and collect this level of detail for a very long time.”

Despite the scale of this project—creating an orthomosaic and 3D point cloud of a runway that’s over a mile long—Kimley-Horn was able to achieve impressive accuracy figures. By flying at 200 feet, processing with GCPs, and measuring accuracy with 5 checkpoints, they earned horizontal accuracy within 0.06 feet (1.8 cm) and vertical accuracy within 0.16 feet (4.8 cm).

Not only does CDOT have this data for their records, but it also has immediate value. As Ruppel said: “Site Scan allows us to easily identify problems or changes that we might not see otherwise.”

2. Runway pavement management done 5X faster in the field

By flying Site Scan over the runways to identify cracks and deformations, Kimley-Horn enhanced their pavement management workflows, improved safety, and saved hours in the field collecting data.

With Site Scan’s Sony 20.1MP R10C camera, they were able to capture the runways in incredible detail: “By flying Site Scan at a 50 foot altitude,” Edwin said, “we were able to achieve a resolution of 1 hundredth of a foot. Ultimately, being able to see that level of detail can make the difference between identifying a small crack or a key, structural deformation.”

Orthophoto of taxiway with resolution of a hundredth of a foot (0.01 feet), collected by the Site Scan drone for pavement inspection

“Now, our team can interpret and understand the data back at the office, instead of doing this in the field,” Edwin explained.

“With Site Scan, we were able to achieve a resolution of 1 hundredth of a foot. Ultimately, being able to see that level of detail can make the difference between identifying a small crack or a key, structural deformation.”

— Edwin Tamang, Kimley-Horn

Next steps

“It was important to show the positive use cases of drones at an airport, and this certainly is one,” Ruppel said. With organizations like Kimley-Horn and CDOT showing what’s possible, safely integrating drones into controlled airspace is becoming easier and more common than ever before.

Kimley-Horn, for its part, continues to find new projects where the aerial view of a drone can make a big impact and create high-quality deliverables for their clients.

“Drones have transformed our industry,” Bobby said. “They are helping surveying, construction, and engineering firms improve the way they collect data, manage their projects, and more. With their speed, low cost, and safety improvements, drones have quickly become a crucial tool—and we’re only just getting started.”