An Aerial View for Engineering the Earth

Geotechnical Engineering Firm Uses Drone Maps While Saving Home from Potential Landslide

By Kaylee Fagan, Contributing Writer @DroneDeploy

So many of the structures we interact with on a daily basis, including the homes we live in, the streets we walk on, and the bridges we drive over, began with a foundation built on or beneath the ground. But natural disasters like earthquakes, landslides, and erosion can often shift the earth beneath these foundations, putting the structures built onto them in jeopardy. If a building is in danger of sinking, falling over, or sliding out of place, a geotechnical engineer will likely be consulted on the best course of action.

Tumal Karunaratne, Civil Solutions Associates

Geotechnical engineering — a specialized arm of civil engineering — is the science of everything related to earth, rock, and all things built into and below the ground, according to Tumal Karunaratne, a project engineer working with Civil Solutions Associates (CSA) in Cincinnati, Ohio. There are only a handful of these specialized companies in the region, according to Tumal, and they are often tasked with designing and installing earth retaining structures, landslide remediation, and foundation design.

Where the Ground Meets the Sky

“We constantly strive to stay on top of technological advancements in the industry,” said Tumal. “I found DroneDeploy about a year ago.They reached out to me consistently and kept updating their platform. So far I’ve found many uses out in the field.”

After trying out a few different drones, Tumal settled on a DJI Phantom Pro 3 and has been using it on all his job sites since.

Living on The Edge

Click here to explore the 3D model

Tumal recollected one memorable project in which he used drone maps throughout every step of the repair. Early this spring, Civil Solutions was contacted by a homeowner in Cincinnati, who feared the suburban home was sliding downhill towards the river behind the house. At the time, there were signs such as the porch foundations being shifted, the swimming pool had cracked and there were cracks along the walls. CSA would need to act quickly and efficiently if they would be able to prevent further damage to the house.

2-D map of the property, zoomed in to highlight the drained swimming pool (click to explore the map)

When he arrived on the site, Tumal knew he wanted to use drone mapping as an alternative to traditional means of site surveying, which can be costly and time consuming.

“Site evaluations could cost us five or ten thousand dollars depending on the size of the site, because we have to hire a surveying crew to go out on foot,” Tumal said. “Instead, we’d much rather spend two thousand on a DJI drone, fly it ourselves and collect all the data we‘ll need.”

Mapping the site before construction began allowed Tumal to assess the topography of the site and understand the direction of the landslide, and display that data in a format he could easily share with his team. Although the river behind the house is just outside the boundaries of the 2-D map, the elevation map reveals just how steep the hill actually is.

Elevation map showing the steep hill in blue (Click to explore the elevation map)

Tumal then used DroneDeploy’s annotations and the 3-D model features to show the client where he planned to install a beam and lagging wall that would support the weight of the house and secure it in place on the hillside.

“I downloaded the 2-D map, and drew the wall in there as a 2-D line, so we could show her roughly what it would look like,” Tumal explained. “It came in very handy.”

When the blueprints were complete and construction was ready to begin, Tumal found out his crew would not be able to transport their equipment over the client’s driveway. Again, Tumal’s drone map helped to create a work-around.

“We used the 3-D model to figure out the best route we could take to build an access road,” Tumal said. “We also had four subcontractors working there and a very tight timeline to get it done, with a lot of equipment coming in and out. We used the drone images to plan where to move the equipment so that no one got in anyone else’s way.”

Access road for construction equipment, taken from a 3-D map taken 2 months into construction

With the client and crew in agreement, the access road built, and blueprints complete, construction was ready to begin. At this point, Tumal had used the drone maps to solve multiple problems and simplify several routine processes, all before even breaking ground.

Two Months Later

2-D maps of the property, taken before and during construction

Tumal made a second map of the property halfway through construction in order to compare the progress to the original plans, and the differences between the maps are stark. Since the last map was taken, the installation of the beam and lagging wall had begun, and multiple construction vehicles could be seen in the backyard. But there was still more work to be done, and Tumal was still finding new and innovative ways to put his drone to work.

CSA brought on a landscaping company to help restore and beautify the yard. Tumal was able to use DroneDeploy’s Area Tool feature to calculate the square footage of the yard to give the subcontractors a head start on their planning before even coming onsite.

“Finally,” Tumal continued, “we also used DroneDeploy to make sure we didn’t encroach on property lines, we didn’t want to run into any issues with insurance.”

Map made during construction (click to explore)

Efficiency is Key

“I’ve dealt with lots of other drone companies,” Tumal said. “But DroneDeploy is easy, cost effective, user friendly, and has excellent customer service. That’s why I prefer it over all of the other platforms.”

3D model made after construction had started (Click to explore)

Mudslides and landslides occur in all fifty states, and annually result in millions of dollars in damage, along with an average of twenty-five to fifty deaths every year. Despite geotechnical engineers’ close focus to the earth beneath our feet, a bird’s eye view can bring newfound insight, efficiency, and speed to a job site, as Tumal demonstrated throughout this project.

Perhaps someday soon, drone technology — in the hands of tech-savvy and innovative engineers like Tumal — will be a staple in preventing these disasters and minimizing their damage.

Where to Learn More

Try DroneDeploy Today

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at


Written by

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones.

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade