CEDAR FALLS — You could tell just by standing at the river’s edge the Cedar River was rising in September of 2016.
What was tougher to tell from the ground was the scope of the flooding.
In the past, such as during the flooding of 2008, Cory Hines — a geographical information systems analyst for the city of Cedar Falls — could hire a plane to take aerial photos of the water’s reach to better present accurate information to city officials. But the plane he used wasn’t available in the fall of 2016 when the water rose again.
So he tried something new: a drone with a 4K camera capable of soaring high enough to map and track the devastation.
With certified drone pilot Jeremy Ott at the controls, the city’s new drone took video of exactly where floodwaters had spread. That proved invaluable to city officials and first responders, who could better prioritize resources in the hardest-hit areas.
“Being able to see some areas we couldn’t get to by land was very helpful,” Hines said. “After the flood, when you’re sending inspectors out, in the interest of time, knowing where that water was is very beneficial.”
Tracking floodwaters is just one example of how Cedar Falls is using its new drone, a DJI Phantom 3 Professional purchased in 2016.
Previously the city paid to use someone else’s drone each time it needed footage for a tourism, emergency or public works project, said Denny Bowman, the cable TV division supervisor for the city.
“We realized that over time it would be much more cost effective to purchase our own and get our own certified pilot,” Bowman said.
So the city paid what Bowman estimated was between $1,000 and $1,500 for the drone, and got Ott certified on the controls.
“I would say it pays for itself in maybe two to three uses,” Bowman said. “It’s paid for itself many times over already.”
Still photos as well as video can be shot from the drone, which can fly for six to 20 minutes at a charge, depending on air temperature. Cold weather shortens flying time because of the lithium batteries, said Ott.
Besides using it for the 2016 flood, Bowman and Ott have used the drone to show a different vantage points for different phases of University Avenue’s reconstruction, helping the wastewater treatment plant see if any of its ports were clogged during testing, and even helped emergency management on a training exercise to see if a drone could locate a missing person.
“During one of their trainings they hid one of their officers, and utilized me and the drone to help find that person,” said Ott, noting he found the person “in about a minute.”
Bowman and Ott anticipate the drone will be used even more by other city departments in the future.
“Sometimes you can see so much better from the air,” said Bowman. “It can clean up a lot of things and give you an overall prettier shot and a different vantage point.”