PBS Finds Success in New UAS Surveying Division
Growth and diversification – not only are these two words that carry positive association in the business world, they’re often two of the top goals companies strive to achieve. Oftentimes, and in the case of PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc., they also go hand-in-hand with building a business.
PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc.
Based in Portland, Oregon, PBS offers professional services across its footprint that includes 11 locations in Idaho and Washington, as well as the Beaver State.
Throughout the past 35 years, PBS has grown and diversified in locations, as well as services, going beyond its roots in environmental, and health and safety, to various areas of engineering, natural resources, and consulting. Among the services it provides today is surveying – both traditional land surveying and the company’s newest offering, UAS surveying.
Unmanned aerial systems technology has grown rapidly throughout the past few years and, in the surveying industry, has proven itself as a practical option when terrain, time, or other unique jobsite factors pose challenges to traditional surveying methods.
But just as PBS’ growth and diversification have been thoughtful and planned since the company formed in 1982, it wasn’t on a whim or an overnight decision that led to expanding survey offerings to include drones. It started as an area of opportunity and continued after finding the right expert – UAS specialist, Derrick Westoby.
An Emerging Business
For about three years, Derrick owned and operated a UAS services company. Working with a small team made up of himself, an agronomist and a chief pilot, Derrick’s company offered survey and mapping work via drones to customers primarily in northeast Oregon and central Washington.
Early on in his company, Derrick connected with Mike Blondeau, account manager with RDO Integrated Controls, an authorized senseFly drone dealer, and UAS technology services company. Derrick recalls meeting Mike, “Right off the bat, I liked him. He was upfront and honest about what drones could do and, more importantly, what they couldn’t do.”
Rather than deliver a canned marketing message or sales pitch, Mike and Derrick had a conversation about drones, including some of the challenges business owners face when looking to implement UAS technology. While his company was focused primarily on agricultural customers, Derrick saw great potential in the professional engineer and surveying world and was seeking a firm to partner with. Mike and RDOI Integrated Controls brought a background in the industry to the table, offering themselves as a resource that would equip Derrick with the tools needed to explore these new possibilities.
From Mike’s point of view, the connection came naturally. “I wanted to help Derrick understand the value in our offerings, and also help him be able to show deliverables and specifics with what he was doing,” he said.
Derrick later began seeking out local engineering firms that he could add value to with his UAS services. In the process, one that caught Derrick’s eye, due to its progressive approach to technology, was PBS.
Partnering for Success
After demonstrating drone capabilities to PBS’ surveyors, there was enough interest in UAS technology that PBS decided, not only to move ahead with a dedicated UAS surveying program but also to bring Derrick on board full-time to lead the effort. As the lead of the new UAS surveying program at PBS, Derrick would be responsible for every aspect including flight planning, ensuring safety and compliance, and data quality management.
In the summer of 2016, PBS worked with Derrick to initiate several pilot studies on existing projects by incorporating the use of UAS for orthomosaic photogrammetry. The initial proof of concept was encouraging. As the testing progressed, the firm began to realize the efficiencies that could be gained from integrating UAS technology into their toolbox.
Derrick’s second order of business was to purchase equipment necessary to do the job. He had familiarity with the senseFly eBee, a fixed-wing drone, from prior discussions with Mike. Because he understood very well how the eBee could be used, as well as its limitations, Derrick included an eBee purchase in his program rollout proposal. From the start, he was also an advocate of the RDO Solutions Center UAV Support Team, a group of UAS experts available to provide troubleshooting and other help to customers.
“The eBee was our first drone in the PBS UAS Program and has already allowed us to get business we may not have otherwise,” Derrick said. He continued, citing one example of a recent road project. This particular project required land survey over terrain that was hallmarked by several rock overhangs, which would have made traditional surveying nearly impossible.
“One of the things that made the eBee a good fit was the terrain following feature,” he said. Thanks to sensing software, the eBee was able to detect when it came close to the face of a cliff, “within approximately 130 feet,” according to Derrick. When it reached that point, the system’s failsafe triggered and the drone elevated itself to fly above the cliff.
The team used the aerial imagery collected from the survey to create a 3D model, which was key to successful completion of the project.
The partnership between senseFly and Skyward has also helped Derrick streamline his workflow for flights. "We started using Skyward because we needed a simple way to plan and log flights," Derrick said. " Skyward fits the bill perfectly. We're able to plan a flight, check the airspace map, and maintain a log of aircraft and pilot hours. They've found the balance between functionality and efficiency, which is what commercial UAS operators need."
Skyward’s digital airspace map lets drone pilots see where it’s safe to fly. In addition to showing controlled airspace and permanent restricted areas, the map also reflects current and future temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) so pilots can better plan their operations and ensure compliance with FAA regulations. As for flight logging, the software tracks the total recorded hours for pilots and aircraft as well as storing maintenance records and documentation in the digital library.
Skyward Co-President Jonathan Evans explained how Skyward is perfectly suited to PBS. “We built Skyward to offer a set of tools for this new generation of aviators—people like Derrick who needed a way to manage a safe and efficient program as he expanded from a proof of concept to an operation spanning multiple offices, pilots, and use cases.”
While more and more companies are researching and adopting UAS technology every day, the PBS approach is unique in the broad scope they use it, from aerial imagery and video to creating 3D models, and generating surface meshes and contour lines. Invested in future of this area of service, the company recently expanded its drone line up with four multirotor-style aircraft for small jobsites.
As unique as the UAS Surveying division is, Derrick is quick to point out that PBS isn’t offering a new service per se; rather, the team is using UAS technology to support what it’s already doing, improving the product and efficiency along the way.
Derrick recognizes and is excited about the potential of UAS technology, in surveying and beyond. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons he was drawn to joining PBS. “There are so many ways we can use drones in our business,” he said. “And we’re continuing to develop and refine new applications every day.”
Visit the PBS website to learn more about the company and services offered.
Interested in implementing UAS technology in your business? Contact RDO Integrated Controls to learn more about UAV products and support solutions.