Landfills Save Time and Money with Drone Mapping

Civil Engineer Uses DroneDeploy to Cut Inspection Process from Weeks to Hours

For landfill managers, thoroughly inspecting their sites on a regular basis is crucial. Identifying potential concerns early helps keep site crews safe and contain environmental hazards, like leaching chemicals and gases, before they become costly and dangerous. In order to conduct these inspections, managers spend a good portion of their time walking their sites on foot. Drone mapping saves landfill managers time and money by giving them a comprehensive overview of their sites in a fraction of the time it takes to do ground inspections.

As a civil engineer and former landfill manager, Edward Schmalfeld knows the difference aerial mapping can make for landfill inspection. In fact, he is so convinced, that two years ago he started a drone service business around this idea. With both a professional engineer and a professional geologist on staff, Dragonfly AeroSolutions pairs DroneDeploy with industry technology, such as autoCAD, to provide professional analysis and review for landfills, construction and roadway projects. We spoke to Ed to learn more about how drone mapping is changing the way landfill managers do business.

To demonstrate the many ways that landfill managers can use drone mapping technology, Ed walked us through maps of a 250-acre site in Florida. Originally, he was contracted to take aerial photographs and use those to conduct the safety inspection. This meant he had to piece together a picture of the landfill based on many photographs, which added several hours to his workflow compared to an inspection using a drone map. In addition to saving time on his own workflow, Ed knew that a drone map would provide the landfill manager with a higher-resolution, more comprehensive picture of his site. After a few monthly inspections using photographs, he finally convinced the manager to let him do the inspection using a drone map. Ed flew the site at 200 feet AGL with 80/80 overlap. Using DroneDeploy, he generated a point cloud, which he then exported into Sketchfab to create a high-resolution 3D model. He used the model to analyze the site for inspection issues and make annotations. The landfill manager was so impressed with the final product, that he has now requested all of his inspections to be done this way.

Click to explore the 3D map and read annotations in Sketchfab

3D Model Saves Landfill Manager Weeks of Inspection Time

“When I ran a landfill,” says Ed, “I’d personally spend weeks walking it to find the issues. Which wasn’t the easiest or most cost effective way to spend my time, but I couldn’t depend on other people to do it, because as the site manager, I was responsible.”

This is a familiar dilemma for landfill managers. During these inspections, they look for issues such as erosion, low soil coverage, standing liquids and escaping gases. Each of these issues, if not fixed, could lead to larger safety and environmental concerns down the road. Prior to hiring Ed, the Florida site, like most other landfills, relied mostly on ground inspection to root out issues. Ed is not exaggerating when he says this process takes weeks. His inspection using a drone map, on the other hand, was completed in about three hours: an hour and a half to fly the site, and another hour and a half to download, export, inspect and make annotations.

“We [flew] the entire landfill in one hour, a true snapshot, as opposed to nearly a month spent walking the site.” -Edward Schmalfeld, Dragonfly Aerosolutions. [click-to-tweet]

Using drone imagery, Ed can generate a highly detailed 3D model and point cloud that enable him to pinpoint areas of concern — such as stressed vegetation that may indicate escaping gases — directly from the model. Each annotation Ed makes in Sketchfab indicates an area that needs closer, on-the ground investigation. The manager can now head straight to the areas Ed points out on his map, as opposed to simply walking the entire site looking for general concerns.

Annotated map showing signs of stressed vegetation may mean that landfill gas may be escaping, or other issues including a possible subsurface fire.

Drone Mapping Increases Safety and Decreases Environmental Cleanup Costs

Not only does drone mapping save landfill managers inspection time, but it has the potential to cut down on the environmental impact and cost of expensive wastewater cleanup. When rainwater sits on the surface of a landfill for more than twenty-four hours it is considered to be leachate, contaminated liquid that must be taken to a water treatment plant. The disposal process costs between 10–15 cents per gallon. This may not sound like much, but landfill sites commonly deal with one or two million gallons of leachate each month, adding up to a potential $300,000 in routine cleanup costs.

In addition to his routine monthly inspections, Ed flies after special events such as heavy rainfalls, which are common in Florida. With steep slopes, unstable footing areas and potential bites and stings from black widows and hornets, landfills can be dangerous to walk on regardless of the weather. Directly after the rain, this danger is increased by the presence of soft, sliding slopes, making certain areas too precarious to walk on at all. Drone inspection allows site managers get eyes on these areas quickly, so that they can identify standing water that is not properly shedding off into the stormwater management system. Resolving these drainage issues promptly reduces the chances of standing water turning to costly leachate.

Annotations of liquids found at landfill site

Drones Help Landfill Managers Keep Real-Time Records

Having a real-time picture of potential issues is invaluable, allowing landfill managers to quickly identify and resolve concerns. But sometimes the adage “no news is good news” is just as valuable. On occasion, Ed will hear from potential clients that drone services are not needed on their site because they have no known issues. When this happens, he makes sure to point out that it is good to find out and document that there were no issues during an inspection. This is a valuable piece of information to have, especially when dealing with regulators and the community.

“Documentation of a good site is as important as documenting issues that need to be resolved,” says Ed. “You might not have any problems, but how do you prove that six months from now?”

By providing regular, point-in-time snapshots of an entire site, drone mapping not only helps landfill managers identify problem areas quickly, but it also allows them to keep an accurate record of the work they are doing to keep their landfills in compliance and up to code. Because at the end of the day, no news definitely is good news at a landfill.

Elevation map of landfill site

Using Point Clouds to Calculate Waste Placement Volumes in AutoCAD

Looking ahead, the Florida landfill manager plans to request the drone-generated point clouds, to be used further by the engineer on his team. Because these point clouds integrate easily with AutoCAD, the site engineer is considering using them to calculate volumes of waste placement and available airspace. Ed recognizes the importance of staying ahead of the curve by integrating drone data with industry software, as well as taking advantage of advancing drone mapping technologies.

“My favorite thing about DroneDeploy is that they continue to push the envelope for new product offerings,” says Ed. “This is vital for me, because at some point everyone is going to grab a drone. The only way a drone service provider can stay in business is to continue pushing the envelope and to team with partners who do the same.” [click to tweet]

Where to Learn More

To learn more about using drones to make 3D models, be sure to read 3D modeling expert Jeff Foster’s 4 Steps for Making an Excellent 3D Model with a Drone. Also, be sure to check out our support documentation for information about some of the other processes mentioned in this case study.

Get Started with Drone Deploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.

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