Parking & Drones: A Match Made in Heaven?
The parking industry as a whole has been investing heavily in technology over the past decade. Licence Plate Recognition cameras, parking guidance systems, LED lighting, multi-space pay stations, online portals, apps, and updating internal systems to harness all sorts of new possibilities. All of which come with a pretty substantial price tag.
Not only have these investments meant a significant financial expense; they’ve come at a human cost too. Training new staff and maintaining employee engagement has been tough, and we’ve seen a lot of turnover as a result. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. With turnover comes the next generation of young, fresh, ambitious parking professionals. Organizations need this demographic just as much as the seasoned parking veterans. (Here’s a little sneak peek: drones can help with this challenge!)
Part 1: The Backstory
To make sure you’re following my train of thought, I want to give you a brief overview of two key marketing concepts (apologies to those who are already well versed in these):
Product Life Cycle: The newer a product or technology is, the more expensive it is to make and to buy (on a per unit cost basis); as you increase sales, costs can be spread out over a larger number of customers and products, thus prices decline over time. TLDR: Wait to buy the iPhone 10 until the 11 is announced and save yourself $800.
Technology Adoption Curve: People are essentially cautious and don’t want to go first. New products gain traction slowly, but once they do take off, competitors and imitators pop up left right and center. See the chart below for details on the phases of adoption or visit the end notes for some links to excellent explanations[i].
Technology Adoption Curve
What’s the point of going into these charts? I want to apply these concepts to parking and to drones. We’re in a place now where the availability and variety of technology for parking management is really good – but still expensive. More and more institutions, municipalities, airports, etc. are adopting the curve; but it’s still in the early majority.
Drones are a bit further along in their life cycle and not only has the technology advanced, but they have also come down in price, thus saturating the market. Kids are asking for drones for their birthdays and Larry the Drone Guy[ii] is buying multiples.
Drones are the next tech primed to hit the parking management industry. Drones are cheaper than almost any other tech you can buy ($2000 will get you a nice one), they gather oodles of data, and pretty much anyone can easily learn to use them. Plus they’re growing as a tool and as an industry – with a compound annual growth rate of 19% in the five years leading up to 2020[iii].
Drones are already good – but they’re also going to get better. 5G networks are coming soon to most major cities across North America (and have already arrived in dozens of them[iv]) which will make operating drones smoother and easier. They will be more responsive to controls and won’t lose network or signal connections, allowing them to fly further and even be operated remotely (or autonomously).
One more thing drones are offering parking professionals (and this may be the most important thing) – staff engagement. People love them. They’re giddy getting to buy them and learn to fly them. Drones get people’s creative juices flowing. It’s exciting, non-threatening, and entertaining (again, just ask Larry the Drone Guy). New pay machines and back-end system upgrades aren’t giving you that kind of payoff, no matter how useful they are.
Part 2: The Use Cases
So now that we’re on the same page about drones being an important up and coming tool that the parking industry can access and benefit from, let’s look at exactly how we can put the drones to work.
Use Case 1: Safety
Regular site inspections are good practice in the parking industry, looking for any hazards (ice, construction debris, fencing disrepair, potholes, etc.). This is ideally preventative, but sometimes when issues are reported after the fact we need to do an inspection.
With drones, getting to remote, dark, dangerous, or hard to access areas is easy. You fly in a camera and get pictures or a live feed of the site, and can act based on that footage. Drones are available day or night, can eliminate putting people at risk on site, and give you unbiased photographic evidence. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been using them since 2018 and has been able to identify more safety risks because of them[v].
Other tools like infrared sensors or heat mapping cameras can be paired with drones to be used in the case of crimes, natural disasters, Amber Alerts, or other emergency situations to help locate people.
Finally, drones can also be used to scare off birds and as a general animal deterrent. This keeps your properties safer for anyone using them. Drones can spot birds and animals as they approach and take actions like emitting a high-pitched noise[vi] – thus scaring off the animal and keeping your lot cleaner (less bird poop? Yes please!) and safer.
Use Case 2: Enforcement
Yes, you can fly a drone around a parking lot and capture pictures of every license plate. If you also have Licence Plate Recognition (LPR) technology, you can upload the photos and determine which plates have paid and which ones haven’t. If you can do post-processing, you then mail out tickets. If not, you can decide if it’s worth dispatching an enforcement officer to issue tickets. For example, one ticket may not warrant staff time; whereas 20 tickets may. *You can read a case study on this coming up in part 4, as this is exactly what the Calgary Parking Authority (CPA) did.*
You can also use drones for other enforcement functions like:
Locating property, such as a stolen vehicle. As a drone circles your parking facility, it scans the license plates and can make real time comparisons to stolen vehicle reports. If any matches occur, the drone sends you a real time alert. Appropriate steps like contacting police can be then be initiated.
Crowd surveillance. If you’re hosting an event at a garage and want to ensure things go smoothly, use a drone to do regular (or constant) flyovers. If you have a facility that is prone to break ins, have your drone do regular patrols to monitor the activity in the area.
Construction monitoring. New construction projects (i.e. new lots) usually mean big dollars and lengthy time frames. Drones allow parking professionals to monitor progress, check up on contractors and vendors, create visuals like still photos, time-lapse or hyper-lapse photography, or capture specific moments on video[vii].
Use Case 3: Occupancy & Usage Data
Drones are a great tool in surface lots or covered garages. If you own the property, a sign explaining drone monitoring typically gives you plenty of leeway to film at your discretion (note that you should look into the regulations in your state as there may be exceptions).
Occupancy data is easy to collect by creating a pre-set route for your drone to fly, and scheduling the intervals that best suit your project and accuracy needs. As the drone follows its route, you can either precisely count (or roughly estimate, your choice) the number of vehicles in the lot. This data can be seen as a specific moment in time, or as a pattern over time. Knowing this enables you to determine information on peak times and occupancy rates without setting foot in the lot.
Car counts at specific times or intervals are also possible thanks to aerial imaging. Having a drone fly over a lot and take a bird’s eye view picture will let you count the cars in real time (or later if you prefer). Or, if you have image analysis software, let it do the counting for you!
I’m sure everyone can think of uses for this kind of data – but one universal example would be to take a picture every hour over several weeks, using the images to determine lot usage rates, proof if new facilities warrant being built[viii] or old ones being redeveloped[ix].
Real time data is another practical application for drones. By using drones at entrances and exits to parking lots, you can note any backlogs, hardware malfunctions (like a stuck gate), let the public know immediately about available spaces, or even see accidents and know when to redirect vehicles out of the area. The United States Federal Highway Administration is doing some pretty cool monitoring and alerting around traffic jams and road conditions too[x].
Use Case 4: Marketing Materials
If you have ever wanted to sell parking, you know it’s not nearly as ‘sexy’ as… well… pretty much anything else.
One key challenge can be solved with the help of drones is obtaining eye catching visuals. It’s hard to find quality stock images of parking lots, and even harder to take them yourself on your phone. With drones, you can take pictures at any angle, distance, or height. Get an aerial view of a lot to show how well it’s lit at night. Get a shot from half a block away to show how full the new structure is. Get an image showing the new car wash station/rock chip repair tent/tire change service in action without interrupting the process.
What do you do with all this beautiful, high quality new imagery? A few use cases that come to mind are picture for social media, attracting prospective students or clients, promoting something unique about a lot, creating print materials like brochures, adding original graphics to your website, or even creating video content. Whatever your goal is, the drone really can take a picture that says 1000 words.
Part 3: The Rest of the Story
Here’s a haphazard collection of ideas and considerations for those thinking about dabbling in the world of drones and parking.
Location, location, location.
Worried your drone won’t work inside a parking garage? Don’t be! Swiss drone makers, Flyability, design and build drones specific for indoor and confined spaces. Their drones are crash proof (they can bump into things and keep going) and don’t use GPS for stabilization[xi]. And a nice bonus to indoor drone flights is that there are fewer commercial flying restrictions in controlled areas.
DaaS (Drones as a Service)
Don’t want to invest in a super high quality, feature-rich model right off the bat? Or unsure about how to use drones most effectively? U.S.-based Measure is an aerial intelligence company that helps you plan your drone related project and takes on the capital expenses, training, data analysis, regulatory compliance, support, and much more[xii]. Renting a drone to see the results you can get is a great option, especially if you’re building a business case for your company to invest in the technology. Just know that every add-on or cool feature you come up with will be at a cost.
For those looking to get a Parksmart certification, a drone can help you accomplish all sorts of tasks in eco-friendly and Parksmart approved ways. Site inspections, lot patrol, even investigating reports of accidents or break ins. If you’re feeling really ambitious, drones can even drop seeds for planting or pollinate existing plants[xiii] (this would be particularly useful if your facility has a green roof).
Many Drones Make Light Work
Yes, you could have an entire fleet of drones! A few uses: 3D mapping (find out if that potential new land acquisition is a good idea), site surveys (monitor your construction projects anywhere, anytime), deliveries (you could deliver hang tags?), or even data transmission (especially for big events like a football game or black Friday).
Coming to a City Near You: 5G
A better-connected network means that drones can transfer the data they gather to other equipment or vehicles for a smarter network. You could use live counts on PGS (parking guidance system) signs, redirect customers to different lots if there’s an accident or emergency at a specific lot, or even set up surveillance for parking lots with high break in rates or criminal activity.
Hackers & Viruses
Just like everything else connected to the internet, drones could be the victims of viruses, hacking, or other malicious attacks. To keep your drone safe, it’s important to update the software as recommended. Keeping your firewalls and internal networks protected is critical as well so that sensitive information captured by your drone is transferred and secured. Don’t leave anything on the drone that isn’t necessary, and don’t put things like your personal information on the drone either. Register the drone with the manufacturer under your business so it can be returned if lost or stolen without any unnecessary risk or exposure to staff.
Most countries have a set of standards regarding the operation of drones. In Canada, Transport Canada regulates recreational and industrial drone use and new rules are coming into effect all the time. For research or corporate use, permission is required to fly a drone in Canada[xiv]. In the US, laws are organized state-by-state but generally must be registered, labelled, and follow FAA rules[xv]. Signage and insurance are other aspects that are regulated and should be considered before buying a drone. Look into pilot and license requirements before you buy or fly.
Some people feel that their civil liberties (i.e. privacy) may be infringed upon by the use of drones (hence you should have good, clear signage). This is because drones are now looking in on people, doing site inspections, and more[xvi]. The more extreme point of view is primarily big brother paranoia (the worry literally originated from a group called the Big Brother Watch), however the US Senate is holding hearings about a national standard for data protection[xvii] – so drones could certainly be on their radar at some point. It’s critical to have a plan in place for data collection guidelines, and a good safeguard to update it to include information collected via drone.
Part 4: Case Studies
Case Study 1: 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 watch the footage the drone captures. With the live feed 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 in real time 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.
My personal favourite is that his drone photography skills have become so strong that his photo of a bus on campus made the cover of IPMI’s The Parking Professional for March 2019. Go pull out your copy and have a look! He also took all the photos I’ve included in this article, with his permission of course.
There’s one final aspect of the University of Texas at Arlington drone story that deserves mention. Before I spoke to Larry, I was warned by his boss that he is “a grumpy old man” (his words!). But when I spoke to Larry, I could genuinely hear the excitement, enthusiasm, and joy he had. 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, but also all about how to edit the photos and videos he was taking).
Case Study 2: 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.
To start, the students 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 you know in advance they will write tickets in. 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 back end 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 learnings 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 as the drone flies up and down all aisles so can capture plates regardless of the orientation
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 a great for a trial as they’re self motivated, innovative, and do not cost as much as a consultant or staff
So 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 like this. A contract reviewed by a lawyer is important. If you’re interested, you can contact Sidney to see the template used at CPA[xviii].
I want to share one last thing from this case study. Similar 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.
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 drones. 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 Chelsea.firstname.lastname@example.org so I can do an update to this story and include your experience!
[ii] Larry is real and he is awesome. His full name is Larry Cummings and he is very passionate about drones. More from an interview with him later.
[vii] If there weren’t enough examples here, I’d recommend this AirDroneCraze.com article that has 12 non-military drone uses: https://airdronecraze.com/drones-action-top-12-non-military-uses/
[xi] Flyability website: https://www.flyability.com/elios-2
ZDNet write up (much less sales-y description of features): https://www.zdnet.com/article/a-drone-designed-to-fly-in-dark-confined-spaces/
[xii] Visit the Measure website to see their software, series, and insights here: https://www.measure.com/
[xviii] Sidney can be reached via email at Sidney.email@example.com