City of Houston hire drone pilots to map ditches, bayous, reservoirs

Larry Blackman stands in a strip mall parking lot on Harwin Drive on the southwest side of Houston. He's on a mission. Actually he's been on several missions so far on Friday.  

Blackman has already programmed his drone and now, it's time to take off.

"From the time I hit the button, it's on its own," says Blackman. "I can take control of it if I have to, but I don't like to." As he explains, the drone soars 140 feet into the air and zooms off.

Blackman works for a Louisiana-based company called Fly Guys. It's a network of drone pilots throughout the U.S.

"We work with municipalities, golf courses, enterprise clients that are looking to get inspection," says Tim Handley, the CIO of Fly Guys.

This time, the client is the City of Houston. The city contracted with Fly Guys to map 140 miles of ditches, bayous and reservoirs. The mapping began in late May. Pilots can map between an eighth and a quarter of a mile each flight.  

The drones capture picture after picture to create extremely-detailed maps. They are faster and safer than having grounds crews do it and cheaper than flying a helicopter.

"Mapping waterways is another application where our clients can just look at their desktops at the waterways and make sure that they're draining properly," says Handley.

It's a laborious project but the group has only twenty miles left to go. Then the city's public works department can use the information to help plan for flood control projects and prepare for the next tropical system. Most likely, this will be completed before then. 

Back on Harwin, Blackman has the drone hover at shoulder height and he plucks it from the air.

"Just like that," says Blackman. Now, it's time to prepare for the next flight.