AFMC Command News

Small unmanned aerial systems to augment civil engineering operations

  • Published
  • By Debbie Aragon
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – The Department of the Air Force is one step closer to safely and more widely integrating small unmanned aircraft systems into civil engineering operations, thanks to the Air Force GeoBase Program’s sUAS office.

The office, a component of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Planning and Integration Directorate, held its first Group 1 UAS operator and instructor training class at San Geronimo Air Park in San Antonio recently.

Group 1 UAS, referred to as sUAS, are easily portable unmanned aircraft systems, typically weighing less than 20 pounds and operating below 400 feet at speeds less than 100 knots. 

The classroom and hands-on training certified AFCEC Geospatial Integration Office team members on three different sUAS systems and included mission planning, pre- and post-flight operations, obstacle courses and various techniques to support data collection.

Having successfully completing the course, the trainees are now Air Force-certified UAS operators and unit-certified initial qualification trainers who will provide training, technical applications and solutions to improve both CE and combat support capabilities, said Julio Toala, Air Force GeoBase operations manager and sUAS program manager.

“Safely integrating and employing sUAS operations is of great value for the CE community of today and tomorrow,” Toala added, “with an end goal of putting sUAS in the hands of civil engineers to save time, money and potential injuries.”

“sUAS, or drones, are used in a wide range of industrial applications. With the rapid growth of drones within AFCEC, we needed to ensure the new technology was safely integrated,” said José Alfonsín, a Woolpert, Inc. sUAS capabilities developer supporting AF GeoBase.

For any military construction project, getting a lay of the land is an essential part of the planning process. This can be done by surveying or mapping an area using a sUAS with either a high-resolution camera or a more specialized LiDAR sensor. 

“For MILCON project managers in charge of monitoring progress of a construction project, having a sUAS do the inspection means being able to collect accurate information even without being physically present. Inspection of any major piece of infrastructure can be a massive undertaking that is logistically complex and inherently hazardous for everyone involved,” Alfonsín said. “With drones, human crews no longer need to compromise their safety to get up close and personal with these massive structures. sUAS footage is also infinitely repeatable and provides better assurance that everything has been well-documented. 

“Civil engineers won’t be required to climb up a ladder, get on top of a rooftop and conduct that rooftop inspection,” Alfonsín said. “sUAS can do that in a fraction of the time.”

“The return on investment by utilizing sUAS instead of contractors for data gathering will improve our capabilities by providing data collection and processing of imagery and LiDAR tenfold,” Toala added. 

“The price of one drone is about half the cost of a contractor inspecting a roof for example, and with a drone we can knock it out in a fraction of the time,” Toala said.

With initial training complete, the Air Force GeoBase team is leaning forward with developing policies, procedures and standards to fully implement sUAS capabilities to support mission essential tasks, as well as integrating sUAS operations in AFCEC directorates. This includes creating playbooks to provide training based on AFCEC mission essential tasks. 

An AFCEC CE sUAS policy work group is also working to identify a sUAS office of primary responsibility to establish a centralized capability for sUAS training, qualification and operational policy and guidance so installation CE squadron sUAS programs can be established and comply with DAF, joint service and Department of Defense policy.  

Toala said he expects the next milestone in the program to come in the fall. 

(Editor’s Note: The Air Force GeoBase Program office manages any kind of data that can be acquired and visualized in relation to installation assets like buildings, flightlines, utilities and roadways.)