How Drones Can Save the Flood Control District Thousands of Headaches

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Every year, Harris County Flood Control District workers and contractors do a lot of tedious, meticulous work monitoring hundreds of miles of bayous and channels in Harris County and tens of thousands of acres of detention basins — work that taxpayers likely don’t give a second thought, or any at all.

Every time a contractor mows the grass along bayous and detention basins, somebody’s gotta walk or drive through those hundreds of miles to make sure the worker actually did all of the proper mowing before he or she gets paid. Every time a tree is planted by the Flood Control District (the district oversees about 225,000 in Harris County), somebody’s gotta keep checking on it to make sure it’s healthy and alive. And every time contractors dig millions of cubic yards of new detention basins, somebody’s gotta survey the giant hole and make sure the crew really did all that work.

Now, though, the Flood Control District wants to get wise with taxpayer dollars and has started considering the use of technology-equipped drones to do most of those mindless chores instead. In fact, HCFD Director of Operations Matthew Zeve said drones may even be used before and after flooding events to make sure there are no drainage blockages that will make floods worse. The flood control district estimates the drones can save thousands of dollars and thousands of hours every year.

For now, though, plans for the drones are glamorously limited to their checking the work of contracted lawn mowers in the White Oak Watershed — a pilot project costing roughly $8,000 total.

“We spend millions of dollars a year on mowing, and we have to inspect all that. It takes a lot of time and staff, and the guys have to be there on the ground,” Zeve said. “So it’s an operational efficiency exercise. We want to spend taxpayer dollars wisely, and make every dollar go as far as we can.”

If all goes well with the pilot, Zeve said, the district hopes to expand drone usage to other areas, such as surveying flood damage or those drainage blockages near waterways. Some spots, Zeve said, can be difficult or dangerous for workers to inspect manually, and the drones would not only be able to cover more acreage in one day but could also reach those tough spots more easily. Spots near bridges can be particularly vulnerable to flooding if vegetation gets too high or if trash and debris pile up, Zeve said.

To ensure all 2,500 miles of channels and tens of thousands of acres of detention basins are in good shape is a three-year inspection from start to finish, Zeve said. With the drones, Zeve said they estimate it would take only one year.

Still, while it’s clear the drones could save some serious time and money (and perhaps some sanity in those dedicated workers?), Zeve said the flood control district has taken into consideration various privacy concerns people who live along those bayous have raised.

“The Flood Control District is being very conservative and cautious with how we roll out drone usage, because we deal with the public every day,” Zeve said. “We want to be very, very careful and cognizant of what the public is worried about. We just want to take baby steps before we go all out.”

Zeve said the district has worked to assure those homeowners that the firm Harris County has contracted with for the drone usage actually designs “geo-fences,” which are digitally programmed invisible fences that drones cannot survey — backyards near the bayous, for example. Zeve said homeowners’ private land won’t even come up blurry on drone video footage — it just flat-out won’t even be there, a giant gray space. “You could be in your backyard waving at the drone and we won’t see anything,” Zeve said.

Right now, the drone company, HUVRData, is compiling the data the drones collected after flying over the White Oak Watershed to check the work of lawn mowers. Once that is complete, HUVRData will forward the information to the flood control district so officials can see how it worked out.

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