Their drones may fly high or swim below water's surface, but a New York tech startup and a national engineering firm are getting in together on the ground floor of new opportunities for infrastructure repair.

Reign Maker, a drone operator and development firm, and Dewberry in January announced a new partnership, bringing together one company's unmanned aircraft system (UAS) expertise with another's engineering chops. They'll help to fix bridges, inspect concrete underwater structures and partner with agencies in the tristate area. "For infrastructure needs, drones are a great thing for all of us," Reign Maker founder Jes Chosid says.

It's the first UAS partnership for Virginia-based engineering and architectural services firm Dewberry. "A pilot project, no pun intended," John Boule, the company's New York City branch manager and senior vice president, says of the drone program.

Boule says Dewberry needed a partner that could handle flying the devices. Daren Dong, lead engineer and project manager at the firm, eagerly brought the idea of pairing with a drone company to his bosses. The gadgets are like an "eye in the air with a 3D scanner on the lens," as Dong puts it, which can collect enough information to create a digital twin of any structure, resulting in much more cost-effective asset management.

How cost effective? When the partners worked on Leggett Bridge in the Bronx last summer, they managed to slash by 50% both the costs and time to create a 3D digital model of the structure's geometry. After a truck collided with the bridge and damaged a truss, the companies flew a drone to collect so-called XYZ data—the type of detailed information commonly used in 3D computer graphics and animation—and translate it into data points to give engineers the information they needed to make repairs. The partners have also used boat-drone hybrids and submarine drones to inspect bridge pilings. Their success on Leggett Bridge preps them for a lucrative market, considering there are more than 17,000 bridges in New York state alone. 

Boule, meanwhile, imagines another use specific to NYC: capturing details about train lines between Manhattan and Long Island, New Jersey or Connecticut. "What if we wanted to capture where every retaining wall was, what condition they're in?" he says. "To have a drone fly along and collect information on the right of way is powerful."

On its own, Reign Maker is also pushing the envelope. It's building a UAS system, with seed capital from a private telecom investor, to autonomously fly devices around cellular towers. Currently, two tower climbers—out of 10,000 in the industry—are needed to inspect the structures, Chosid says, adding that it's an "incredibly dangerous" job that resulted in 16 deaths last year. By using drones instead, "it takes away liability and they can photograph 100% of the assets. They can do video, photos, model measurements, weights," she says.

The drone business is also working with the state of Utah on its pilot integration program with the federal Dept. of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration. That experience should come in especially handy in New York state, since Reign Maker one of 210 listed partner companies in a new agreement, announced last fall, between the Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR) Alliance and NASA.

With the entities' launch of a 50-mile UAS testing corridor and the National UAS Standardized Testing and Recording drone testing facility, "we are establishing Central New York and the Mohawk Valley as the premiere destination for businesses at the forefront of innovation," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said at the time. And Reign Maker will be there, perhaps someday with partners like Dewberry in tow.