Pioneering Drones for Forensic Inspection
Jeremy Reynolds of RTI tells how drone maps and models help him investigate catastrophic failures
Companies across a range of industries are starting to recognize the potential of drones for inspection, but for some, flying UAVs has already become a familiar part of the workflow.
Jeremy Reynolds is the Chief Operations Officer at RTI Forensics— and he’s been using UAVs to get an aerial view in inspections for the last two decades. When we spoke with him recently, he shared his stories about using UAVs in the (really) early days, described how he uses maps to investigate “catastrophic failures”, and reflected on how drone technology for inspection has changed over the years.
RTI is a forensic engineering firm that investigates aviation, rail, marine, utility and other accidents, primarily on behalf of insurance companies. “When there’s been an accident of some kind, whether a failure of a piece of equipment or a building that has collapsed or an aircraft has crashed, we need to capture the scene exactly the way it is before anybody comes in to clean it up,” said Jeremy. RTI then examines the data to interpret what happened and determine who’s at fault, so that the insurance company can assess claims and decide if they need to pay out damages.
The Early Days
Jeremy first began using radio controlled helicopters and airplanes to fly over accident scenes back in 1995. Particularly for large-scale accidents, it’s difficult to capture the scene from the ground, and an aerial view can be critical.
“We even used kites,” said Jeremy. “There was one case we had in a no-fly zone, but after talking to the authorities, I was able to use a kite with a camera because it was attached to the ground.”
When UAS started to come out around 2006, he immediately saw the potential and was excited to test out the new technology. Jeremy looks back on those days fondly. “It was getting more attainable in terms of cost and we started building our own quad-copters. You would get it to work, go out and fly it, and it would crash. The whole process was absolutely amazing — I thought, boy this must be how the Wright brothers felt when they were trying out new aircraft,” said Jeremy.
After the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started regulating commercial drones, temporarily grounding RTI’s fleet, Jeremy began working with FAA and National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) on rule making to help them understand what SOPs (standard operating procedures) should be for UAS. “It’s been a lot of fun being part of the process”, said Jeremy.
3D Models Enable Complex Simulations
In the years since Jeremy began flying model aircraft, drone technology has come a long way, and so has the software — particularly for generating 3D models. “3D was always very big for us,” said Jeremy. “We’ve tried to use laser scanners, but they’re very expensive, clients didn’t need the level of detail and it’s tough to get all the imagery you need from the ground.”
Drones provide a better option. “The way that drone photography has evolved, it’s become more accurate and it’s at a price point that is much easier for the clients to put their heads around,” said Jeremy. “When we go out and fly and bring the data back, we’ve preserved the evidence so our experts and engineers can go back and get an understanding of what happened — even though the accident scene has been cleaned up.”
“We’re always amazed at what we get back from DroneDeploy,” said Jeremy. “We’ve used a lot of other software out there, and with the others, we have to spend hours and hours cleaning up and manipulating the mesh to get something we can use. We’ve put the same data through DroneDeploy and it comes back and it’s like, “wow!” it’s so easy — just put the images in and it comes back exactly how you expected.”
RTI’s engineers use the maps and 3D models to make measurements and run computer-simulated scenarios. In one recent example, RTI was asked to investigate a leaky roof that was damaged beyond repair. After flying over the site to make a 3D model, they imported the model into Finite Element software and ran simulated rain over the building roof and parking lot to observe where it drained and help detect the site of the roof leak.
Reconstructing a Plane Crash
Forensic investigation attempts to examine the evidence to devise a story about what happened — and sharing a map can be a great way to collaboratively develop and communicate that story.
A little while ago, a plane crashed at a small private airfield, just down the street from RTI’s offices. After calling the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to report the crash, RTI became involved in the investigation and flew their DJI Inspire drone to map the debris field.
Looking at the completed map, Jeremy and his team made measurements, shared findings and began to reconstruct what happened. First, he drew the purple line to measure the distance between the crash and the end of the runway. You can see that not only did the plane crash about 1,000 feet short of the runway, but it also wasn’t lined up correctly.
“The witnesses say the airplane hit the ground, bounced and came back down,” said Jeremy, and that’s consistent with the large dent mark in the ground, supposedly caused when the propellor struck the ground. The red mark, perpendicular to the dent, shows the estimated angle of the plane when it struck the ground, suggesting that the plane was originally angled too far south of the runway when it hit the ground, bounced approximately 90 degrees and landed again, this time angled too far north relative to the runway.
“You can see the plane was on fire, and unfortunately two people died in this accident,” said Jeremy. “What we want to determine is did the deceased die from the impact or from the fire?” Understanding how they passed away is an important first step in determining whether they died due to pilot error or some other reason, which could potentially lead to a lawsuit.
What was easy to see on the map would have been very difficult to detect on the ground. “You couldn’t see all of the markings on the ground unless you walked right over them because the grass was 2–3 feet tall. Being able to look from above was very different,” said Jeremy. He also appreciated how easy it was to share the map with his team.
“I’ve been able to share a link to the file with the people that need it and we’ve been able to talk through the map on the phone. It’s been really helpful,” said Jeremy.
UAV imagery has come along way since Jeremy first began flying model aircraft to take photos, and he’s looking forward to the future. “There’s been so much evolution over the years — I’m really excited to see what’s next,” he said.
Where to Learn More
Explore our support documentation to learn more about how to use some of the tools discussed above, including:
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