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Drones and Parking They Create a Lot of Excitement

October 3, 2019

Chelsea Webster

When I spoke to organizations that actually use drones, I got a lot of good information. What also shone through the conversations was the fact that people who use drones are excited about their potential. 


University of Texas at Arlington


Larry the Drone Guy (aka Larry Cummings from Parking and Transportation Services at the University of Texas at Arlington) was kind enough to chat with me in early May of 2019 and tell me about his drone. He bought a DJI Phantom 4 Pro+ in early 2018, and I’m not sure any of the three batteries it takes have been fully charged since. Larry’s drone has been a useful and highly requested tool by every department at the university. Some departments liked it so much they bought their own. 


Larry has three large screens that he uses to review the footage the drone captures. With the video content and still images, there have been a lot of ways this has proven to be a good investment. Here are a few of the interesting things that Larry and his trusty steed (the drone) have done over the past 18 months:


- Taking pictures of stadium lighting (and other very high things)


- Creating hyperlapse videos of parking lots filling up in the morning


- Traffic planning through the use of construction site photography 


- Accumulated photo content for presentations and videos (especially of fleet and public transit vehicles) 


He’s been able to redirect drivers while lots become full, saving parkers time and frustration. He says that the drone has even been able to do fly-overs of lots and show utilization rates, ultimately proving if more parking space is needed (or not). 


Once, Larry was asked to participate in a project where the University wanted to see the amount of light at night time around a specific building. They wanted to know if and where more lighting was required to make the facility safer for users that were on campus until the wee hours of the morning. And the drone provided all the answers they were looking for. 


When I spoke to Larry, I could hear his excitement, enthusiasm, and joy. He loves the drone. He is so engaged in his job because other people want to use this cool, new tool and he gets to help out with their projects and ideas. He wants to participate and show off this asset. Not many people are this passionate about parking. But maybe a drone could do for your workforce what it has done for Larry – get them excited and teach them new skills (he had to learn not only how to fly the drone, but also all about how to edit the photos and videos he was taking). 


Calgary Parking Authority 


In 2017, students at the University of Calgary approached the Calgary Parking Authority (CPA) with a research proposal to buy a drone, and test out its ability to capture and report license plate information. The CPA saw potential and paid for the drone (another DJI Phantom 4 Pro, just like Larry’s) as well as the license, insurance, and other accessories needed; and the project was soon in full swing. The key player in this project is Sidney Starkman, a Planning & Development Analyst with the CPA, and she sat down with me in January 2019 to tell me about how the project unfolded. 


The orphan conducted tests with cars parked in various formations to determine the drone’s capabilities like flying speed, vehicle spacing minimums, and vehicle positioning needs. Once all of that was established, the drone was ready to head out for CPA’s municipal impound lot. 


For this trial, all tests were conducted while the impound lot was closed. This eliminated any risk of personal injury to the public and controlled the environment. The key research objective was to use the drone to scan license plates so that the CPA could determine if the vehicle had made an appropriate payment and was compliant with parking policy.


Right off the bat, I can tell you that the cost of a drone plus a staff member to operate the drone is a LOT less than the cost of a car, equipment (cameras, server, etc.) and an enforcement officer to drive around with a mobile LPR vehicle. It’s a great alternative for operators who manually enforce, too, as you can save a ton of time by only sending the officer out to parking lots where you know in advance they will write tickets. The flip side is that for a one-off project, it’s more cost effective to hire a company rather than buying a new drone. Ongoing use (as in using it for enforcement) is needed to justify the cost of the drone purchase, staff training, and other costs. 


It’s important to note that the CPA uses post processing. This means as the drone flies past and photographs plates, the info is immediately sent to the backend system to check if a payment is made. However, if the vehicle is found to be non-compliant, no one needs to action this finding. A ticket is simply issued and mailed out. However, if your parking operation doesn’t use post-processing, you can still use a drone for enforcement. It just means that as the drone flags any non-compliant vehicles, you alert an officer who then proceeds to the area to issue a ticket at that time. 


According to Sidney, the key takeaways from the project include:


- The study found that on-street use of drones wasn’t a viable option due to variables like uncontrolled obstacles and moving vehicles


- Cars can be parked facing any direction, but the drone flies up and down all aisles so it can capture plates regardless of the orientation of the lot


- Software is required to make the drone data usable; if you already have this great, but if not, it can be a couple thousand dollars to purchase 


- Depending on the project you’re running and functionality you’re looking for, integrations into existing enforcement software may be needed


- A mobile LPR device for the drone is a great upgrade to streamline the enforcement process 


- Hiring students was great for a trial as they’re self motivated, innovative, and do not cost as much as a consultant or staff 


What were the end results? The CPA discovered that drone enforcement is entirely possible. Hiring the students meant that at the end of the trials, a report including materials, ongoing impact, downsides, and a step-by-step guide on how to do everything was documented and provided to the CPA. That’s a definite plus. One caution is to make sure an ownership agreement for the drone, as well as the data and findings, is in place before you begin a study. A contract reviewed by a lawyer is important. If you’re interested, you can contact Sidney to see the template used at CPA. 


I want to share one last thing from this case study. Similarly, to what happened at the University of Texas at Arlington, the CPA staff was excited. Really excited. People wanted to sit in on the presentation of the final report. The board members and leadership team were keen to get the results. There was a palpable buzz around the office. Everyone wanted to fly the drone. They were passionate about it and proud to be working for a parking operation doing cool stuff. 


Final thoughts 


1. Drones are a great investment. You’re only limited to what they can be used for by your own imagination. I’ve outlined two different use cases, but you can do something completely different, if you’re so inclined. If your organization isn’t quite convinced, it’s relatively cheap and easy to run a test. As I mentioned earlier about the product life cycle, drones are becoming more and more accessible, easy to store, and inexpensive. 


2. People love them. Staff are eager to take part in drone training and use. People request the drone for all kinds of things. Your staff will get excited to learn something new. They’ll be talking about it to their friends and family. The public may even take notice (for better or for worse). You can be a tech-friendly workplace with happy employees saying positive things about their jobs. 


3. I want to hear about anything you do with drones. Email me at the address below.


Chelsea Webster is Market Specialist for Park Plus System. She can be reached at Chelsea.webster@getparkplus.com.



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