Case studies

eBee X saves £20m and 100,000 project hours on Heathrow airport’s third runway project

Heathrow Airport is Europe’s busiest airport, and plans for a third runway – although currently on hold – will bolster the UK’s economy even more. As part of these ambitious design plans, Heathrow’s engineering team needed to develop a highly accurate 3D digital model of a 29 km2 area surrounding the existing airport.


Share | 04/12/2022

Tablet showing 3D digital surface model of Heathrow Airport.
This digital surface model (DSM), orthomosaic and 3D mesh, totaling 19 billion data points, was shared on Sensat’s cloud-based platform for collaboration across multiple shareholders with Heathrow and the design team. Photo: Sensat

We sat down with AgEagle’s global sales manager, Chris Thomson and the team at data visualization specialists Sensat, to hear how our eBee X fixed-wing drone helped to save £20m in costs and more than 100,000 project hours.

Overcoming project barriers

Operating next to a busy airport is a challenging environment for a drone. But traditional ground-based mapping methods weren’t feasible, as much of Heathrow’s surrounding area is privately-owned farmland. It would also be time-consuming to map such a large area on the ground – not to mention expensive. Keeping disruption to a minimum was key; the controversial nature of the project meant mapping needed to be safe and unobtrusive, without affecting normal airport operations.

Data processing would also be a potential challenge due to the scale of the site. More detailed, engineering-grade data was required compared to previous projects at Heathrow, and with various stakeholders involved, a better way of sharing the information was needed.

Why the eBee X fixed-wing drone?

In the first project of this scale, Sensat chose to map the area using fixed-wing drones. The team picked fixed-wing systems over quadcopters, to achieve better coverage on a single flight using only Extended Visual Line of Sight (EVLOS) permissions. The chosen drone also needed to be reliable and easy to operate. Plus, being able to capture the required data in a shorter timeframe would also help minimize interference with other air traffic.  

The Sensat team already knew our eBee system well and selected the eBee X fixed-wing drone after it proved to be reliable on similar high-risk missions. And with the eBee X’s superior endurance and eBee series S.O.D.A., a sensor optimized for drone applications and photogrammetry, they could benefit from longer flight times and improved accuracy, with sharper resolution images.

Mission parameters for eBee X were assigned in eMotion, our flight planning software, which allowed operators to easily set a circular working area as a barrier – preventing entry into restricted zones.

Screenshot of eBee X mission over Heathrow Airport.

By working closely with National Air Traffic Services (NATS), Heathrow Control Tower, Airfield Operations, airport security and the local police forces, the eBee X could fly unrestricted to capture the necessary data without safety incidents or interruption to normal airport operations.

Mapping safely and efficiently

Using a fixed-wing drone was a valuable resource-saver. Only two operators were needed for low-risk areas, while a minimum of three people were required where it was a higher risk, including a spotter for the runway. Although there were limitations to when flights could take place, the data was captured in just 16 site days – without any need for land access approval.

The results helped the team to create a high-density point cloud, digital surface model (DSM), orthomosaic and 3D mesh – totaling 19 billion data points. This information was then shared on Sensat’s cloud-based platform, to be used as a digital native workspace for multiple shareholders at Heathrow and the design team to collaborate. Integrating the data with CAD and BIM also helped to provide more detail, speeding up the design process and reducing the risk for errors.

Future-proofing airport infrastructure design

Using fixed-wing drones was a game-changer for the Heathrow expansion project, enabling a large area to be surveyed faster and more cost-effectively than typical on-the-ground methods. What’s more, the team could survey the site without gaining land access permissions, which would be lengthy and more dangerous.

The eBee X proved to be the ideal solution for mapping such a complex, high-risk site. When the expansion plans restart following legal approvals, Sensat plans to use the eBee X again to gather more insights. Could fixed-wing drones pave the way for future infrastructure to be designed and developed in a similar way? We think so!

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