Rogers-O’Brien combined a drone with InfoDrainage to solve a problem quickly – and very accurately

Eric Suesz Eric Suesz March 6, 2023

7 min read

We need you to come back to the site. There’s been some flooding.

No general contractor wants to find a message like that in their inbox half a decade after wrapping up a construction project. But a representative from Magnolia Montessori was indeed coming back to Rogers-O’Brien (RO). They were concerned because water was ponding at the entrances to buildings, and in some cases, infiltrating inside.

Drones have transformed from gee-whiz technology into an essential construction tool.

RO had been contracted to build Magnolia Montessori School back in 2016. This publicly funded Montessori program in Austin, Texas is held in a collection of eight buildings, which are scattered across a lot with notable elevation changes from one side of the lot to the other.

“It had been five years since the school was completed,” says Director of Field Engineering Michael Clark. “We immediately went back and looked at all of our geotech reports and all of our as-builts to make sure we had installed everything correctly.”

Back to the site to look around

Clark headed to Magnolia Montessori to conduct an initial inspection and meet with a school representative. He needed to quickly determine how much water was ponding in certain areas and understand the overall flow of water on the site. Was sheet flow heading toward area drains? Was everything draining to the detention pond?

“The school sits on such a large area that it was hard to tell with the naked eye on a clear-and-dry day where the water might be infiltrating,” says Clark. He did notice that a few sidewalks were cracked and lifted, but it wasn’t immediately evident which area drains were failing – or if failed drains were even the source of the problem.

Don’t have a drone yet? You can fly around and survey the school lot using Google Maps satellite 3D view. (Imagery: ©2023 Google map data)

Back at the office, RO estimated that they might have to spend three weeks collecting the necessary data. They knew they could use drone technology to quickly and easily get very accurate surface data, but the slow-down would be analyzing the flow of water on the surface. They didn’t want to spend hours manually looking at topography information to try and determine the water’s flow paths.

A commitment to flying high with innovation

“That’s when our Director of Virtual Design & Construction Chris Patton came to me to me with InfoDrainage,” says Clark. “We were still in the pilot phase of extending our latest drone mapping initiative, testing it out. We figured using InfoDrainage in conjunction with our drone on this project would be an excellent test case.”

“We’re trying to lead the game on innovation,” Chief Innovation Officer Todd Wynne chimes in, backgrounded by a long row of award plaques that sit high up on a shelf in RO’s open office. “Rogers-O’Brien was one of the first to implement drone technology in construction.”

Wynne explains how RO began using drones very early, around eight years ago. They started in a simple way by capturing progress photos on their construction sites. But a year ago, they took a bigger leap and adopted Propeller to expand their use of drone technology.

It was settled. Clark sent the crew to the site to fly their drone while he installed InfoDrainage.

Moving to new technology is hard. Or is it? Hear how Denny (“What is this? I want my drawings.”) was quickly won over by new tech.

The importance of interoperability

Like a lot of general contractors, RO is comfortable working within Autodesk’s CAD environments, and they rely heavily on file interoperability when working with subcontractors of all sorts. “We were able to perform an aerial flight over the entire site, process that within the Propeller Platform, and then export a surface model as a DWG file,” Clark says, detailing his workflow.

Clark brought that DWG file into Civil3D and then into InfoDrainage where he could examine the situation using InfoDrainage’s Deluge tool. The tool produced a heat map of the low areas and surface drainage patterns, showing him where the problem areas were – and where all that water would end up under extreme rainfall situations. That process took less than an hour. This was, perhaps needless to say, significantly less than the three weeks they had originally estimated.

“The Deluge report worked great,” says Clark. “We were able to put the surface model into InfoDrainage, set the parameters of the deluge, and it told us exactly what we needed.”

By combining InfoDrainage with the Propeller Platform, RO was able to easily see the problem spots – giving their engineer and the client added confidence in their work. (Courtesy RO)

The school had requested drawings to show where the ponding was occurring, but Clark was able to give them something even better with another interoperability win. He took his InfoDrainage output file (DWG or DXF) and imported it back into Propeller as an overlay, giving the school (and his engineer) an interactive map of the area with actual InfoDrainage data overlaid on top. “It highlighted the areas that were holding water, in a very nice, easy-to-view way.”

Good news – it’s the soil

With the results from their engineer and all their InfoDrainage information at hand, the RO team was able to determine that the area drains were performing properly and that sheet flow areas were grading to the appropriate drains across the site. However, there had been a lot of expansion in the soil over the last five years, resulting in water retention. This isn’t so unexpected with high-clay soil, which can expand drastically during the winter and then contract in the extremely hot Texas summers, leaving a void underneath concrete.

This is what was causing the flooding issues. The good news was that no additional (costly) drainage infrastructure would be needed. They could simply replace specific areas of the concrete walkways and top it off with Select Fill or sand, which would help alleviate or slow future soil expansion. They were able to efficiently complete the proposal, along with better-than-expected pricing, and submit it for the public approval process.

All-in on the latest and greatest tech

RO is now all-in on drone technology – and ready to go deeper with InfoDrainage.

“I can take our design models and put them directly into Propeller for quality control and verification. The accuracy on it is so high that we can use it for survey-grade reports. Most other platforms offer 1- to 2-inch accuracy, whereas Propeller offers 1/4- to 3/8-inch accuracy.”

Does he think other GCs would find InfoDrainage useful? “The Deluge tool alone would be a great tool for general contractors for verifying issues and for quality control.”

“Let’s say we’re working on a 10,000 square foot parking lot,” continues Clark. “We’ve poured concrete and are doing our final close-outs. We can fly over it with our drone, plug the Propeller output into InfoDrainage, and make sure we’re not going to be retaining any water. We can make sure that everything drains to all the drains it’s supposed to and ensure that we’re not going to have a huge pond in the middle of the parking lot. Same thing with earthwork on a gradual slope, where there may be small areas you can’t see with the naked eye in the grading or in the pouring of the concrete.”

Ahead of the game: RO bought their first computer in 1980, first crane in 2003, and first drone in 2012. (Courtesy RO)

Reducing liability in an uncertain climate future

Like many of the people who do the hard work of building the world around us, Clark is more and more alert to the changing climate. He says it’s now all-too-regular to hear about 50- or 100-year rainfall events where it rains six inches in one day.

“InfoDrainage can simulate everything in a virtual environment so that before we finish a project and tell the owner that it’s done, we can make this part of our verification process and feel confident that we’ve done our due diligence by providing a comprehensive drainage report,” says Clark. “If, two years down the road, a huge storm occurs and the owners come back to us to point out that there’s 5 inches of standing water in our parking lot, it provides us some leeway. Of course we’ll come and fix it. But it’s always advantageous to know that we were correct the first time.”

And that’s a great position to be in when you get called back to a job.

Go deeper into the story

Fill up on more of the One Water blog

Sign up for the One Water Blog newsletter, and we'll keep you updated about our top stories, along with the best content we find online. We only send out a newsletter when we have something interesting to share.