Saint John engineering firm flies in after Oroville Dam crisis

Saint John engineering firm flies in after Oroville Dam crisis

In the parking lot of Brunswick Engineering, Stephen Perry flies one of his two high-end unmanned aerial vehicles in 65 km/h winds.

The birds, as he calls them, carry a combined price tag of $120,000 but allow Perry to survey in just 15 minutes what might have previously taken him days or even weeks.  

Perry is the president and senior civil engineer for Brunswick Engineering in Saint John and the role of unmanned aerial vehicles — or UAVs — in events like the Oroville Dam episode, which have brought his company to the international stage.

Both of the dam's spillways breached in February, forcing 180,000 Californians from their homes.

"We got invited to one the biggest civil engineer projects in North America to help them collect data that they otherwise just couldn't get accurately," the president said. "It's definitely a big feather in our cap."

"I was caught off-guard a bit. It's something you're not expecting."

Expert in field

His two UAVs, Surveyor 630 and Orion 700, are made by an Ontario company called Infinite Jib, which asked Perry to fly its prototype in California.

The manufacturer considers Perry's company one of the few competent enough to be able to survey difficult terrain and fly the high-tech gadget simultaneously, skills needed when handling a situation such as Oroville.  

"The alternative way to capture the data we caught would have been a) unsafe, b) there's major logistical problems using existing technology to capture similar data and other forms of collecting the data are limited to being stationary," he said.

"We were able to get very good coverage."

Usually, operating the UAVs is enjoyable, but Perry said this wasn't the case with the Oroville Dam. There were 300-foot craters at the bottom where the water eroded the soil away.

It's also required that the machine be kept within eyesight while in operation.    

"You're essentially flying a Mercedes," he said. "If you crash, it's not so fun."

Not replacing workers on ground

With thermal cameras, 3D modelling, and peeking through pavement, the machines increase efficiency — but Perry is quick to say they complement the work surveyors do on the ground, not replace it.

They are versatile, he said, and he's used them for everything from looking for structural weaknesses in bridges in Miramichi to looking for leaks in the roof at McAllister Place in Saint John.

"It allows for the Department of Transportation or other owners to identify troubled areas, triage bridges," he said. "It's going to allow them to review more bridges in a season.

"Or NB Power for towers."

The only major limitations, he said, are battery life and the size of the information that Perry's computer, nicknamed "Megatron," has to process.