By Darlene Danehy, PE, TE, PTOE, ENV SP, LEED AP, Traffic Engineer at Psomas
Using Drones for Parking Studies
The use of drones is becoming increasingly useful when conducting parking studies, utilizing far less manpower, while collecting more comprehensive data compared to standard methods.
Historically, conducting a parking study would require multiple people counting cars and/or occupied parking spaces several times on a consistent schedule throughout the day. For example, in the case of a study conducted at Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Walnut, California, the parking study required 16 technicians on the ground collecting hourly data over a 12-hour period for each of 8,900 parking spaces.
By comparison, a single drone technician was deployed on the same day to photograph all of the parking lots each hour. While only seven drone runs were collected in the 12-hour period due to congestion on campus, the data that was collected was very valuable in showing where people are parking throughout the day, along with unexpected information, such as where people are parking illegally.
With large parking lots, several drone photos may be needed to cover the area, with the photos subsequently stitched together. Depending on which software is used (and how many times the action needs to be repeated), the photo stitching process can be somewhat time consuming. However, the resulting photos can be very illustrative and useful not only for the client, but also in communicating with the public. The following figure shows an outlying parking lot at different times during the day. Note the lot is nearly full at its peak (center photo) but is relatively empty at other times of day.
As with other types of data collection, planning is critical when collecting drone data. It is important to coordinate not only with your client, but also with nearby airport facilities to ensure the drone does not impinge upon air space restrictions.
It is recommended test flights be conducted prior to the day of the survey. Issues to address include access, visibility (i.e. covered parking, dense foliage) or, as in the case of the Mt. SAC study, the ability of the drone pilot to physically move around the study area in order to capture data within the expected flight time. Drone battery life, the data-collection flight path, and weather (including wind) are other aspects to be considered in the survey planning.
Benefits of Using Drones
Drones can be very useful to a client and the public by providing clear visuals of the conditions on the ground as well as help settle discrepancies in the views of opposing parties about what is actually occurring at a study site.
The data itself can be collected more easily than using standard methods (for example at Mt. SAC, where one drone operator covered the same area that required 16 ground technicians) and can be reviewed and rechecked at any time.
Lastly, the drone photos can provide additional insights into site conditions that would not be captured otherwise, such as queueing or illegal parking.
So while there is certainly still work to be done in streamlining the process, it is expected that drones will be very useful when conducting parking studies (and likely in collecting other types of traffic data) in the future.