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Aerial drone pilot program


The Santa Clara Valley Water District is proposing to implement a pilot project to use drones in land surveying and mapping activities in locations within Santa Clara County. Also known as “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” drone technology is more cost effective than the traditional use of piloted aircraft. Because drones fly at lower altitudes than airplanes, the images and data produced can be more precise.

The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the operation of drones for non-hobbyists. These regulations ensure that commercial drone operators (or pilots) are trained and certified and that they follow strict safety requirements. The water district has certified drone pilots who will fly our drones during the pilot project.

After the proposed pilot project is concluded, district staff will evaluate its effectiveness to determine if the program should continue.

What will the water district use drones for?

The water district plans to use drones for surveying and mapping activities.

  • This could help engineers design flood protection or bank repair projects.
  • Drones can help us inspect our own construction sites.
  • We can use a drone to map invasive vegetation and plan for vegetation management activities.
  • We can use a drone to evaluate permit requests to conduct activities on water district property.

We can also use drones to take photographs and video of water district facilities and property for health, safety, security, maintenance, operations and community outreach purposes.

How is a drone better than traditional piloted aircraft?

  • Drone flights are much less expensive than an airplane or helicopter flight
  • Drones fly lower, allowing for more detailed images (See samples below)
  • Drones can be deployed quickly and as frequently as necessary

For example, we recently needed to conduct a topographical survey for a flood protection project on San Francisquito Creek. A conventional aircraft would cost a total of $12,000 with a four-week turnaround. A drone would cost a total of $5,600 with a one to two-week turnaround.

On another project, we needed aerial imagery for a proposed project on Lower Calera Creek. A traditional helicopter would cost $3,600 with a two-week turnaround. Had we used a drone, it would have cost only $600 and be completed within two days.

Comparison of traditional aircraft photo vs drone photo

What about privacy?

The water district will be taking images over public lands, just as we have done with airplanes and helicopters for decades

Our imagery will be focused on water district property. Our properties often abut private property, but our images will be taken at an overhead elevation that would make facial recognition highly unlikely. By flying at lower altitudes than piloted aircraft, drones can capture data focused on water district property with far less overlap of the surrounding area.

We will comply with the voluntary best practices that have been published by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

How can I provide input on this?

We welcome your input. Please send your thoughts or questions to Kris Puthoff, manager of our Land Surveying and Mapping Unit, 408-630-3718.

Sample drone video: