Robert Peters, Ph.D., P.E., and three students from the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering recently attended a conference in Alexandria, Egypt, where Peters gave a keynote address on the potential of geographic information systems and drone technology.
The conference, the 9th Alexandria International Conference on Structural and Geotechnical Engineering, was held at the Helnan Palestine Hotel over three days in late December.
Above, Robert Peters is presented with a plaque (right) acknowledging his keynote address at the 9th Alexandria International Conference on Structural and Geotechnical Engineering.
In his keynote address, Peters described the recent interactions between the CCEE department and Egypt, including a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that supported nine UAB students and faculty in a Study Away course last spring—as well as a separate NSF travel grant that allowed Peters to bring students to Egypt for separate workshops throughout the year.
While those workshops have typically focused on wastewater and pollution prevention, Peters’s keynote address turned attention to a different subject—examining how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly called drones, can be paired with a geographic information system (GIS) to perform a variety of tasks—such as construction, thermodiagnostic, and bridge and dam inspections.
“Advances in drone technology have opened up a number of possible research areas that before were often impossible because of cost,” explained Peters. “We looked at projects in the past where the cost exceeded $60,000 to get access to an aircraft, not to mention pilots and equipment.”
High quality drones today are being sold at a fraction of that price, and even though satellite images have made it possible to identify large-scale anomalies in a landscape, drones can capture high-resolution images revealing details impossible to see from space.
However, as they have become more numerous in the private sector, scientists have found that there are many more obstacles than just cost. Citing a recent study, Peters explained in his address the myriad concerns around privacy and safety. “When you’re collecting photographs of infrastructure, you record a lot of data,” Peters says. “That raises questions about what you’re allowed to photograph, and who owns the data that you collect.”
Despite those challenges, Peters says the many opportunities drones create with their ability to gather data cheaply and efficiently, make it essential that those questions be sufficiently addressed.
Citing many UAB projects that are already using drones, Peters highlighted new opportunities involving drones, such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s proposal to use drones for power-line/pipeline inspection. However, he says, “Drones and the data from drone-data services do not provide a complete solution. We need to learn how to integrate the data obtained into an ecosystem of software. Integration of drone technology and GIS is vitally needed to use as resource management tools, and that is only the beginning. Once some basic parameters are set for the use of drones, the sky is the limit.”
In addition to Peters' keynote address, graduate students April Nabors and Sandra Cutts, and undergraduate student Randall Scott all presented posters at the conference. They were joined for a portion of their trip by UAB graduate and current Egypt resident Mohamed Mostafa, Ph.D., who earned both a doctoral degree in civil engineering and an MBA from UAB.