Water Resources Recovery Facility aerial view (Mumfreesboro, Tenn.)


Myriad missions for Murfreesboro drones

Robotics, Automation & Unmanned Systems Finalists

Fast Lightweight Autonomy and Service Academies Swarm Challenge Program
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Defense

Process Robotics

Sea Hunter

Semi Autonomous Top Layer Technology
Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Army

UAS Program Development
City of Murfreesboro, Tenn.


Click here for the full list of 2017 Dig IT finalists for all categories. And please join us at the Oct. 19 Dig IT Awards gala.

To get a better view of what’s happening on the ground, officials in Murfreesboro, Tenn., looked to the sky. With a goal of saving money on costly missions to take aerial photos for map updates every five years, Murfreesboro became the first city in the state to earn a Federal Aviation Administration certificate of authorization to fly unmanned aircraft systems.

“Before this, when we needed aerial photography, we’d have to either work with a service that had a helicopter or had airplanes,” said Chris Lilly, the city’s IT director. “Doing some research, we found that what normally takes us $400,000 [or] $500,000 to do every five years could maybe one day cost us around $75,000 if we did it with UAVs and UAS.”

The drones also have applications outside mapping. “As you get it and you start seeing the aerial footage, you realize the opportunities — the police department, they realized it — and start working together,” he added.

Other use cases include Fatal Accident Crash Team investigations and rescue missions involving thermal imagery to search for lost individuals. The Fire and Rescue Department uses the system for training, and future applications include city planning and disaster response.

“We’ve had those times when aerial photography would have helped us out when we were working with emergency management,” Lilly said. Officials need “the footage to [know] whether to declare an area a catastrophe.… So in our disaster contingency plans, we work in the opportunity of using drones.”

Since the city launched its first drone — a Yuneec Q500 — in February, it has added more systems: Yuneec hexacopters, a DJI Phantom 4 and a DJI Mavic. The city stores all the imagery from its 50-plus flights so far on Microsoft’s cloud-based OneDrive.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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