The Thomas Wildfire on California’s Central Coast was the largest fire in the state’s history. Burning over 280,000 acres, it destroyed more than 1,000 structures and cost over $175 million to extinguish. Though particularly destructive, this was only one of several destructive disasters over a half-year period. After the efforts of first responders conclude, the daunting task of rebuilding looms. And rebuilding begins with surveyors.

After a disaster, surveyors are under pressure to make sure they are not a chokepoint to rebuilding – meaning that they are providing top-quality work as fast as possible. This requires planning and preparation.

Before firefighters had fully contained the Thomas Fire, William Meagher of WM Surveys in Ventura, called on Aerotas to help his team implement a drone survey program that would enable them to survey as fast as possible when the fires were out without sacrificing survey quality. WM Surveys was able to demonstrate how, in critical post-fire surveying, having an effective drone program offers several key benefits: reducing survey turnaround time, providing high-resolution imagery to accompany surveys, and minimizing crew exposure to hazards. All of this leads to reconstruction happening faster, cheaper, and safer.

Speeding Up Reconstruction Surveying

The greatest benefit of a drone program for a surveyor’s business is also its primary benefit for reconstruction: speed. With the right operating procedures and know-how, a drone can reduce the time it takes to finish a survey by up to 90 percent. WM Surveys spends as little as 30 minutes on-site to gather data, then, using photo-stitching and CAD linework drafting services, spends mere minutes of office time creating a final survey.

Many survey teams around the country are already facing staff shortages and a hiring crisis. A spike in work from a natural disaster exacerbates this challenge. The time savings of a good drone program mitigates this by serving as a force multiplier. WM Surveys is now doing in less than 30 minutes what would have taken more than four hours.

Saving so much time on every survey means that WM Surveys is speeding up the recovery process, helping get residents back on their feet faster. This eases the burden on homeowners and the ultimate cost of the fires without sacrificing WM Surveys’ own business bottom line.

After the Thomas Fire, landmarks were gone, terrain was different, and with so many homes destroyed, the structures that remained were randomly located. It is disorienting and makes the most basic planning for clearing and rebuilding extremely challenging. Providing a clear picture of existing conditions to homeowners, insurance adjusters, government officials, and builders is invaluable in these circumstances.

On standard projects, many surveyors rely on Google Earth to serve this basic need for a visual, but even in the best circumstances, that imagery is outdated and inaccurate. After a fire, Google Earth is even less viable. Within a matter of hours, WM Surveys can create a high-resolution 3D image of a property in a simple web-viewer that residents, builders, and other stakeholders can easily use for planning. Importantly, however, this is more than just a pretty picture: it is accurate enough for surveyors to pull locations and elevations. In a post-disaster context when field surveyors’ field notes are going to be even harder to interpret than normal, this site intelligence is invaluable.

Minimize Risk To Field Crews 

For WM Survey’s crews needing to traipse through damaged and destroyed properties, dozens of potential hazards remain. A drone reduces these risks by minimizing how much a field surveyor needs to walk around a site recording points.

The benefits of using a drone for post-disaster reconstruction surveying is substantial, but only if used correctly. While it has become simple to get airborne, getting to final survey linework with consistently high accuracy – and doing so efficiently – takes a great deal of know-how. In their post-Thomas Fire reconstruction, WM Surveys demonstrated key principals every surveyor should follow in drone surveying: the benefit of planning, the importance of standard operating procedures (SOP) and training, and being able to produce linework fast.

A drone can save a lot of time in post-disaster reconstruction, but only if missions are planned correctly. In their reconstruction surveys, WM Surveys went into each project knowing exactly what they needed: CAD linework describing how the terrain and structures have changed after the fire and a high-resolution image to illustrate it. With their dialed-in operation, they’re collecting exactly the data they need at the accuracy they need in the most efficient way possible. They’re not wasting precious time collecting unnecessary data like oblique imagery or video. They are, however, collecting extra data where the time-cost is low and potential benefit is high, such as adjacent properties that are also damaged. That way, if they are asked to survey that property as well, they can do so without an additional trip. 

Professional SOPs and Training

In a situation where time, accuracy, and safety are all equally important, SOPs and professional training are critical. Field staff that have been professionally trained on high-quality SOPs ensure that every surveyor on the WM Surveys team collects data of consistent 0.1 foot or better accuracy. When pressure on crews is high, SOPs and rigorous training are even more important. A comprehensive but efficient checklist ensures that every drone flight is safe, legal, and collects exactly the data required the first time. In a post-disaster context, many things are unpredictable on the ground and it would be easy to miss a step that requires a costly return trip.

Deliver Final Survey Linework Fast

The in-office workflow for getting the drone photos to final linework needs to be as efficient as possible. After each survey, WM Surveys uploads the raw photos and ground control target coordinates to Aerotas. ASPRS certified staff manage the critical photo-stitching process, then draft linework on the resulting 3D model. Aerotas then sends this data back to WM Surveys as fast as possible, and equips WM Surveys with software to easily modify the linework, merge in any critical field data, and create their final survey. The numbers demonstrate the impact of this workflow, with WM Surveys completing over 23 surveys in less than 30 days.

The past several months of wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and landslides have shown that disasters can strike any place, any time. Surveyors need to be prepared for the unexpected. It’s not good enough for a survey team to be able to just keep up with the work they currently have; they need to be ready to scale up to meet unpredictable need. This is about more than just running a profitable business, but about being responsible community members. Aerotas has been honored to work closely with the team at WM Surveys as they serve their community. Together, Aerotas and WM Surveys have helped get residents back in their homes and put their lives on track in the Ventura area faster than would have been possible before.