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Support from the air

Drones in operation for ecological construction monitoring and photo documentation

The technical check is complete, the GPS connection is established and the status lights are green. The 1.2-kilogram drone rises calmly into the Hamburg sky, piloted by Caroline Klapdohr. She is the department head for "Terrestrial Ecology" at IfAÖ Institut für Angewandte Ökosystemforschung GmbH and, among other things, carries out occupancy checks in bird nests. An important part of her work consists of services that are summarized under the generic term Ecological Construction Monitoring. In general terms, this includes monitoring compliance with measures designed to guarantee environmental protection and minimize adverse effects on flora and fauna. In this context, drone pilot Caroline Klapdohr is not only on the move on land, but has also carried out flights over the Wadden Sea to document the effects of cable-laying work.

Ecological construction monitoring for grid operators

Her current assignment takes her to eastern Hamburg, where the grid operator 50Hertz wants to modernize a substation built in the 1970s, and adapt it to the increasing grid management. Caroline Klapdohr uses IfAÖ's drones to conduct occupancy checks in high-voltage transmission piles, as these cannot be climbed under live voltage. Thanks to the aerial drone support, it is possible to see which nests are occupied and (if necessary, after several checks) determine a possible start of work on the system that is in compliance with the respective species protection laws.

Advantages and disadvantages of modern technology

For some years now, IfAÖ has been increasingly using drones for occupancy investigations. The advantages are obvious: instead of switching off the power and putting people at risk when climbing masts, the use of drones is faster, safer and less disruptive for the birds being observed. "Basically, drones are excellent for any area where humans have a hard time getting to or need help getting to. For example, this can also be rooftops of houses or nature reserves that are difficult to access. However, it is difficult to obtain official permits to fly over these areas," explains Caroline Klapdohr. She also points out that the type of bird being observed can make a difference, as there are also defensive animals that can attack the drone and injure themselves in the process. There are also limits to its use: in many sensitive areas, it is generally not allowed to fly, or if it does, then only at a specified safe distance. The technology itself can also be an obstacle, for example if the battery power is not sufficient for longer flight distances or in challenging wind and weather conditions. Overall, however, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages from Caroline Klapdohr’s perspective. She sees great potential, especially for construction monitoring and area monitoring.  "Until a few years ago, we went out for occupancy checks with a ladder, climbing harness and notepad. Nowadays, our tools include a tablet, spare battery and joystick."

At IfAÖ, it is assumed that drones will be used more and more frequently in the future. Although no explicit emphasis has been placed on this in tenders so far, aerial construction monitoring is  happily accepted by the client in most cases; especially since the development of drones is not standing still. Each new generation will have better cameras and additional measuring devices on board, as well as improved flight characteristics. Thanks to more powerful batteries, additional tasks and longer flight distances will be possible. Caroline Klapdohr is certain that especially as it pertains to documenting construction activities and impacts on nature (before-and-after images), drones will become an increasingly popular tool. In addition, IfAÖ also makes its technology available to other departments of the GICON® Group for assignments, such as geotechnics or construction planning.

The use of drones as an extension of the range of services offered by environmental construction supervision