State departments of transportation (DOTs) are responsible for building and maintaining critical infrastructure across the country, and finding new and innovative ways to address the demands of future growth on the nation’s roads and bridges. And their jobs have just become more challenging: in July, AASHTO estimated a $37 billion loss over the next five years in state DOT revenue due to decreased fuel taxes and tolls as a result of the pandemic.

That’s one reason why West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) turned to drones to save time and money. They’re not alone — as of 2019, 36 out of 50 state DOTs were running drone operations internally. In just over two years, WVDOT has seen a great return on investment, saving more than $340,000 in a single month.

I recently had the chance to join WVDOT on a Skyward webinar to talk about how they achieved ROI so quickly. Here are a few insights from their program.

Start small when building a drone program

WVDOT’s drone program has more or less followed a “Build, Scale, Innovate” model. In 2017, they began formally looking into launching a drone program. They began by building standard operating procedures with help from West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which already had a drone program.

“They were very helpful in helping us build our SOPs,” said Travis Long, Chief of Surveys at WVDOT. “Like most government agencies, we had to have an internal policy approved and in place before we started our proof of concept projects.”

Drone Aerial View of West Virginia Roads

It took about three months to plan for the program, pitch it to stakeholders, and get funding. Then, in spring of 2018, they began flying test missions.

“We went into it very skeptical as we started on this proof of concept project,” Travis said. “But really quickly, we were able to identify that this could be really beneficial for us.”

WVDOT identified that drones could be ideal for stockpile surveys. Drones had the potential to speed up the process, reduce risk, and increase accuracy. Jesse Bennett, Statewide Survey Unit Leader at WVDOT, flew several test missions to validate the use case. He quickly realized that drones had huge potential to transform this time-consuming and risky task.

Drone aerial view of road construction

Scale up your drone program and get to work

After laying a solid foundation of policies and a proof of concept, WVDOT entered the “Scale” phase. The next step was to add pilots who would fly by the rules.

“We hand selected our pilots,” said Jesse. “We wanted pilots who would be professional and responsible.”

Travis and Jesse assembled a team of 9 drone pilots. They got them certified with the FAA as Part 107 commercial drone pilots, trained them, and educated them on WVDOT’s standard operating procedures. They also convinced leadership to invest in 12 drones to start their fleet.

WVDOT also began using Skyward’s Drone Management Platform to manage all their flights, pilots and equipment. Skyward offered a single, digital platform to coordinate complex missions and obtain airspace permissions.

“I saw the need for something like Skyward from the very beginning, when I was the first and only pilot,” Jesse said. “I was manually entering flight logs and maintenance logs, and I was using about seven or eight different apps and websites just to plan and fly a mission.”

Jesse began using Skyward as a single place to keep track of pilots, certifications, flight logs, planned missions, and more. Skyward’s software helped him demonstrate that crews were obeying FAA regulations, as well as WVDOT’s own rules.

“Without a system for tracking our flights, it became evident very quickly that we couldn’t keep up, especially as we began to add pilots,” Travis said. “You really need to have your finger on the pulse and know what’s going on statewide so you can answer any questions you get about your operations.”

West Virginia Capitol in Skyward

Using Skyward has also helped protect WVDOT’s program. It helped Jesse quickly resolve an investigation after someone mistakenly assumed Jesse didn’t have authorization to fly in an area and reported him to the FAA.

“This is where having Skyward was extremely helpful for me, because I was able to pull my flight logs right off of Skyward,” Jesse said. “I was also able to send the investigator my Notice of Authorization for the airspace within minutes of contact.”

At the conclusion of the investigation — which was resolved within 24 hours — the investigator seemed impressed with Jesse’s speed and the professionalism of the documents. He saw that Jesse was operating responsibly, and that he had authorization for his flight. In the end, he told Jesse to keep up the good work.

West Virginia DOT’s first use case: stockpile surveys

Starting in the spring of 2019, WVDOT began deploying drone crews for stockpile inspections at scale, hoping to show return on investment very quickly. Travis explained that WVDOT has 177 sites across the state that contain stockpiled materials. Annually, those stockpiles must be physically surveyed to calculate the volume of the material.

Volumetric Stockpile Captured by Drone  Volumetric Stockpile Drone Data

Conventional stockpile surveys required a worker to physically climb the pile with specialized equipment. This hazardous and time-consuming method was still limited in accuracy. Drones, on the other hand, provided a much safer alternative. Drone crews could fly a drone around a stockpile and quickly capture extensive imagery. Processing software could then stitch the drone images together to build a 3D model of the pile. This enabled drone crews to calculate stockpile volumes with survey-grade accuracy in a fraction of the time versus the conventional method.

“We would typically have 21 survey crews working on this project, and it would usually take right around three weeks during April to complete it,” Travis said. “That year when we took it on with the drones, it only took us seven days to use drones to collect this data, process the data, and then give back results.”

“We were so impressed with the results,” Travis added. “Drones make really good models, and they’re more accurate than we would ever have surveyed them. I still today would argue with anyone that this is the best way of surveying stockpiles.”

Calculate the results and quantify your return on investment

WVDOT calculated ROI by comparing the conventional method of stockpile inspection with the drone method. The conventional method took 42 surveyors 15 workdays, totaling a cost of about $378,000. With drones, however, the same workload took seven UAS pilots only seven workdays, costing about $35,000. That adds up to a savings of $343,000 in a single month.

West Virginia DOT Finds ROI with Skyward

Travis pointed out that those cost estimates don’t include additional benefits, such as higher frequency of surveys and less equipment needed. And WVDOT is just getting started with drones. As they enter the “Innovate” phase, they’re interested in drone use cases such as:

  • Construction uses, such as quantity takeoffs
  • Preliminary surveying
  • Topographical mapping
  • Road safety assessments using point clouds
  • Drone-based LiDAR surveys

Advice for starting a drone program

For DOTs and other entities looking into starting a drone program, Travis’s advice is pretty straightforward.

“We emphasize starting small,” he said. “Find a project. Get through the part that none of us likes to do — the policy and the SOPs — and get that done quickly. Plagiarize — that’s what we did. Borrow from what others have done and make sure you tailor it to what fits your program. Go from there and then start working. Ultimately, drones are just another tool in the toolbox for a surveyor.”

To learn more about WVDOT’s drone program and how Skyward can help, watch the on-demand webinar: West Virginia Dept. of Transportation Finds ROI Success Using Drones.