Rise of the Drones: Emerging Technologies in Design and Planning

Above the Columbus 5th Avenue Corridor, Digital Resource Archivist and Curator Chris Strasbaugh took to the skies in the Knowlton School’s first drone-based research and analysis project. Stitching together the drone’s 3500 hundred aerial photos, students in CRP 4110 Transportation and Land Use evaluated an 86 ft. by 3 ft. high-resolution map of the corridor’s infrastructure.

Enabled by aerial-perspective data collection, such as high-detail imagery and sensor-specific mapping, research and design efforts across the Knowlton School’s three disciplines are just beginning to harness new flight-bound technology.   

“With on-the-ground field assessment you may only have time to visit a few sample blocks or properties, but with drone footage that provides high-resolution aerial views, you see precise details over a large area. You can discern a different amount and scale of information very quickly,” commented Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Amber Woodburn. Combining field work and drone technology with Pix4D, a photogrammetry software with applications for image stitching and 3D modeling, Woodburn’s students were able to analyze the corridor’s infrastructure and its condition to develop a complete street planning intervention.

Woodburn indicates that drone technology can further enhance other types of planning research, such as the study of air quality to understand spatial patterns of health impacts. Thermal-camera equipped drones can also provide data on urban heat islands at the property or neighborhood scale, which could be used to measure comfort at a bus stop, for example.

With the rise of increasingly climate-stressed environments, drone-based thermal imaging also addresses areas of research in the Landscape Architecture Section. Drones equipped with thermal and hi-definition color imagers can create accurate orthomosaics of a site. Practical uses for representation and analysis involve the study of solar radiation and soil moisture, such as how heat and pollution from waste lagoons affect the micro-climate.

“I think drones are useful in providing a new perspective and in allowing you to see things that you couldn’t see on the ground,” commented Forbes Lipschitz, assistant professor of landscape architecture. For example, in a study of how plants are growing and the speeds at which they are growing in a large site, traditional survey methods would require being on the ground and conducting measurements, which may require the need to make some generalizations. “Photographs by drones would allow you to measure down to the resolution of the camera itself. You can get leaf-level data,” stated Lipschitz.

Another interest in drone-base technology in the Landscape Architecture Section is multi-spectral imaging, added Lipschitz, due to its prevalence in precision agricultural applications. Drones equipped with multi-spectral cameras offer a new way to understand ecological performance in their ability to measure how much each plant is photosynthesizing at a given moment during different seasons. “We’re just beginning to explore how these types of indicators can start to reshape how we think about design and the natural landscape in a different way,” commented Lipschitz.

Architecture students in Michael Baumberger’s spring studio designed and built play structures in collaboration with Columbus Metro Parks. In designing the three structures for the Glacier Ridge Metro Park in Dublin, students studied different landforms with the intention of referencing the site’s geological past. Assisting the studio’s preparations, Strasbaugh flew the school’s drone over 400 acres in a grid pattern in order to capture overlapping aerial images. “The ability to capture imagery and other data over such a large area and from previously 'exclusive' perspectives really make the technology a game changer,” commented Baumberger.

Captured site images were plugged into Pix4D software that created high resolution, geo-referenced maps that could be viewed as a standard 2D map or as an interactive 3D space. Baumberger stated that the option to quickly gather data and generate highly precise digital models is beginning to influence how one understands and responds to a given site.

Faculty using this technology indicate that it is still important to verify aerial data with information gathered in the field. “The data we can collect from drones is supplementary and can aid your overall recommendation process,” stressed Woodburn. “I don’t think there is any one technology or lens through with which we should look at the landscape,” commented Lipschitz. “What we should strive to do is give our students as many tools as possible, and give them different ways to see the world around us.”