First in Flight: Darshan Divakaran on Fixed Wing Drones and the NCDOT

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North Carolina’s state motto is “First in Flight” – and when it comes to the drone industry, they’re working to maintain that reputation.  Darshan Divakaran is the UAS Program Engineer with North Carolina DOT, the department most in the news for their activity in the UAS Integration Pilot Program.  NC was chosen as 1 of 9 UAS IPP winners,  from 150 applications.  Their winning proposal was for package delivery and disaster response focusing in infrastructure inspection: the state’s goal is to explore flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and over people.  At today’s Pix4D User Conference, Divakaran talked about the advantages of fixed wing drones – and using the right tool for the job in disaster response.

Drones in the NCDOT

North Carolina has 80,000 road miles, 72 publicly owned airports, more than 300 private airports, and an extremely varied landscape.  Drones are heavily integrated into state operations, with more than 31 aircraft across the state performing missions on everything from wildflower documentation to disaster response.  Primarily, the DOT used quadcopters: but, as Divakaran points out,  they aren’t always appropriate.

“Fixed wings aren’t used a lot,” says Divakaran.  “That’s due to a lack of education.  People think that a fixed wing needs so much more space to take off and land, but the flight length is also much longer.”

Integrating Drones into Disaster Response

That increased flight endurance is why Divakaran is integrating fixed wing drones into disaster response efforts in the state. The state’s terrain includes mountains – where landslides are a relatively common event.  Traditionally environmental teams wearing full protective gear and use safety ropes to perform an inspection.  Quadcopters don’t necessarily have the endurance to map an entire mountain -but a fixed wing can get the necessary images to document road damage for the entire area, resulting in fewer dangerous manual inspections.

On the other side of the state, says Divakaran, there are coastal roads that become flooded with every storm.  Previously, using a quadcopter, Divakaran’s team might have to fly for 10 hours: mapping the roads 10 minutes at a time to land and swap out batteries. It’s a grueling and frustrating mission to cover a relatively short distance.   “This is where corridor mapping really could have helped us,” Divakaran says. “There were no people [to fly over.]  If we could have done the whole 16 miles with one flight, it would have saved us a lot of time.”

“Using the right tool for the job makes a big difference,” says Divakaran.  The NC DOT has partnered with fixed wing vendor senseFly, who makes the iconic eBee.  It was the eBee that was largely used following Hurricane Florence in September of 2018, which caused over $70 billion damage in the state.

“We were very fortunate there were no lives lost,” says Divakaran.  The footage is impressive and almost hauntingly beautiful, showing roads washed out and waterways flooded: and the long range helped document stretches of damaged road infrastructure.

Divakaran says that post hurricane, the drone operations were a success.  “We were able to communicate conditions to get people off of the road, to monitor evacuation routes and traffic, and get real time information on infrastructure.”

NCDOT’s video of Interstate 40 flooding.


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