A New Perspective on Drones: A Q&A with Urban Ecosystems’ Sam Geer

A New Perspective on Drones

Sam Geer says drones are no longer out of reach for the Green Industry. Geer, a geospatial design teacher at the University of Minnesota and a design professional with Urban Ecosystems in Minnesota, feels it isn’t a matter if drones will be used, but how soon.

They’re quickly becoming affordable — with a decent aerial drone coming in at $500, along with $20 and a few weeks of training to gain a commercial license. Drones have a growing list of applications: from surveying, to spraying and even mowing (think of a Roomba with mower blades).

Contractors are using them for presentations, promotion, planning and designing. Already this spring we’re seeing tweets of superintendents using flying drones to survey course conditions rather than taking a long walk, or drive from green to green. And green industry pros are using their eye in the sky to monitor spray coverage, pest problems & maintenance practices (*cough* keeping an eye on crews’ progress *cough*).

Riviera (2)

Geer isn’t grounded by some standardized modus operandi. His team focuses on designing green infrastructure systems that change the way people think about the nature of cities. Urban Ecosystems approaches projects with an understanding that each landscape is different — and they adapt their methods to ensure that projects are well-crafted, respectful of its origins, and brings life to a new place.

Sam provided a — dare we say crash course — in drone applications for turf professionals at Reinders’ 23rd Green Industry Conference last March. Recently, we doubled back to dig a little deeper into the use and future of drones in the green industry.

Do you think aerial (surveying) and mowing drones will be used at Green Industry job sites within 3 years? #ReindersGIC

— Reinders, Inc. (@Reindersinc) March 16, 2017

Q: What’s the license process like for learning to fly a drone?

A: Since the FAA released its new regulations, the process of becoming a commercial drone pilot is more straightforward. Anyone can fly a drone without being licensed, but you do need to be licensed for commercial operations. This process involves putting in the necessary time to study for the test (typically a week or two of study time) and paying the cost to take the test. Learning to fly a drone is an ongoing commitment that means studying the technical requirements of operating the drone, understanding the proper safety measures, and performing the necessary upkeep.

Q: How different is the drone you started with compared to the current setup you use now?

A: We currently use the same drone that we started with as it was a business investment that we made understanding the necessary costs and features that we wanted to have so that we could use it for our mapping and project documentation. I often recommend starting with a cheaper drone so that you can learn the ropes without making a major investment to get started. This can be done for as little as $300 – $400.

Site Planning
Site Planning (UrbanEcosystemsInc.com)

Q: Do you foresee drone usage becoming more normalized in the landscape industry? If so, for what uses?

A: I absolutely see it becoming more widespread. The main uses will be assembling basemaps for landscape construction projects, documenting the condition of built and planted landscapes, and using drones to create attractive video and photographic footage of projects for promotional purposes. As the technology improves, it can also be used to build 3-D models and virtual flythroughs of unbuilt projects. This does require investment in both hardware and software, but the price points for these things are already within reach of most landscape design / build companies.

Q: Do you have any cool stories or instances in which the drone footage surpassed your expectations or intended use?

A: In particular, the drone has been priceless in getting a new perspective on the landscape. Seeing the bird’s eye view helps gain a better understanding of the true scale of a landscape and can communicate to clients the value of your design intent much better than a 2-D plan. We have found that taking an aerial photograph and then drawing on it in photoshop adds a \’wow\’ factor to the design that helps the client understand exactly what their landscape will look like.

Q: What advice do you have for the contractor or superintendent who’s interested in drones but unsure about the learning curve & ROI?

A:  Working with drones does require some affinity with technology and a willingness to experiment and take risks. It will require an investment in hardware ranging from $500 – $2000 and a staff person dedicating time to learning to operate, maintain, and stay up to date with regulations. The cost to become a licensed operator is only $20, but will require study time. Likewise, there is the need for insurance and investment in post-processing software to edit photos and videos or to work with the 2-D and 2-D models generated by the drone flights. All told this can mean an investment of $5,000 or more. Drones also can crash and malfunction quite frequently, particularly if the needed upkeep is not being done. This means that it is worth performing an ROI analysis to understand how your business model will generate the revenue to offset these costs and ideally net you a good return.

Erin Hills Flyover
YouTube/Erin Hills Golf

Q: Would you recommend companies invest in drone technology or look outside for expert help?

A:  It depends on the extent to which they plan on integrating the drone into their regular operations. If you just need some footage of built projects or an accurate basemap for a particularly complicated project it may make more sense to hire an expert. However, if you need this level of mapping and documentation for typical projects the investment will likely be worthwhile with a quick turnaround on the investment.

Check out Sam and the Urban Ecosystem team’s work here.

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