Customer Story

Building Consensus through Drone Mapping

December 14, 2021

Rivers are the forgotten landmarks of cities, with these water bodies often telling a familiar story of past use, neglect, and avoidance. Channelized canals were created as a center of commerce and industry, but now, these avenues frequently sit vacant. Without serving as bustling channels of trade and transportation, this water often collects trash and festers pollution as it winds through urban areas. To combat this, Urban Rivers works to use the existing infrastructure of these rivers in major hubs to revitalize our cities, with the ultimate goal being to transform once-stagnant city rivers into modern-day urban sanctuaries.

Building Consensus for Project Plans

Like any large project, gaining consensus from potential investors or stakeholders is a crucial first step. As Nick Wesley, Director and Founder of Urban Rivers told us, “High-quality photos help stakeholders visualize what we are trying to achieve.” With this mindset in place, DroneDeploy’s drone mapping solution was a natural next step. To begin, the organization used DroneDeploy throughout their planning and implementation processes to show current river conditions, visualize future states, and measure incremental success. It is important to note that because the Chicago river is a public asset, there are many different interest groups who must be included in the decision-making and planning for the “Wild Mile.” On this point, Nick stated, “Drone mapping has become an incredibly useful tool to gain buy-in during the planning process.”

Planning and Planting for Landscaping & Design

To create landscaping and design plans for the organization’s first project, DroneDeploy’s side-by-side overlays were used to map the current scene, and show partners how the gardens would eventually look. In one example, Nick described how he used the tool to assure a community crew that Urban Rivers’ floating gardens would not impede their ability to kayak on the river. “When I showed the group the future state plan, we were able to work together to ensure that their traditional rowing path would remain unaffected,” Nick explained.

Because satellite imagery is often inaccurate and out-of-date, Urban Rivers could not rely on it to identify coastline features of the river. “If there are a lot of trees shading the river, our planning team cannot identify where the coastline begins,” Nick added. Using drone technology, the team can instead fly multiple times a year to capture continuously up-to-date information. Plus, with features like annotations, the maps could be marked up for easy comprehension of the slope and length of the shoreline. This came in especially handy when the team discovered an oil spill after looking at their panorama data. After reporting this to their local environmental quality group, the leak was identified in no time.

Panoramas are an excellent tool for us. We can quickly throw up a drone and get actionable data in very little time.”
Nick Wesley picture

Nick Wesley, Director & Founder, Urban Rivers

The River Ahead: Cities of the Future

Through their conservation and revitalization efforts, Urban Rivers have already marked noted benefits to the environment. Since the group’s inception, they have planted over 20,000 native wetland and prairie plants in the river, with their placed mussels filtering 10,000 gallons of water per day. These plants directly contribute to a significant reduction in nitrates and phosphates. Additionally, the organization is also expanding their volunteer and educational contributions - with 12 student trips already hosted and 50 active volunteers per week.

So what’s next for the organization? In addition to aerial drones, Urban Rivers is experimenting with different water-based autonomous systems. One such project involves a remote-controlled trash robot, which collects visible surface waste for disposal on-land. In the meantime, volunteers have worked to clear over 12,000 pieces of trash from the Chicago river. The group’s most ambitious project yet - the Wild Mile - will be a mile-long floating river garden and park through the city’s urban center. We’re looking forward to seeing this installation post-build.

If you’re interested in drone use for conservation, watch our webinar on drone mapping for NGOs, or contact us about joining our Drones for Good program.

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