It’s not uncommon to find a drone circling a construction site these days. A growing number of pool builders depend on these flying bots to document progress and film stunning fly-throughs of completed poolscapes.
But Jim Wolfe has found drones to be instrumental long before ground ever breaks on a project. He’s using the technology to take pool design to new heights — literally.
Wolfe deploys his DJI Mavic Pro to circle a property a couple of times. With each pass, he adjusts the camera on the device to capture a different angle. He then processes the footage through Pix4D, a drone photogrammetry software program, which converts the photos into millions of pixels to create a 3-D model.
That model is then rendered through SketchUp, which is compatible with Wolfe’s preferred pool design software, Vip3D’s Pool Studio. Once in Pool Studio, Wolfe can create custom pools, decks and other outdoor features in a photo-real 3-D environment.
It may sound convoluted, but Wolfe, owner of azPoolz, a design firm in Chesterfield, Mo., swears by the process. Before he discovered drones as design tools, the only way to piece together a virtual backyard was through a combination of Google Earth images, physical site measurements and photos. It’s a laborious, time-consuming process and the results aren’t always reliable. Sometimes satellite images are several years old and missing crucial data, such as the home.
Drones with advanced surveying technology solve that problem.
“It’s like Google Earth on steroids,” Wolfe said. “The accuracy is amazing. Instead of a satellite image from 20 miles in the air, it’s an aerial shot from 75 feet.”
Wolfe estimates measurements are accurate to within ¼ inch.
“Not only is it photo-quality, but it has the elevation changes of the property,” he added. “Then people can truly see what you have.”
Soon, importing his renderings into Pool Studio won’t be as arduous. The software company, Structure Studios, is planning to streamline the process.
“This new use of drones is potentially huge savings if the builder can simply fly a drone around a property and end up with an acurately scaled 3-D model of the customer’s home and property,” said Noah Nehlich, Structure Studios’ founder. "We’re excited to see how builders use these 3-D models in Vip3D so we can build official support for this innovative method of 3-D design.”
Wolfe’s drone also comes in handy for remodels. To get measurements for tile and coping, he simply puts a 10-foot tape measure on the deck as a reference point and snaps a bird’s-eye-view shot of the existing pool. Within minutes he has the exact dimensions he needs.
“These numbers are 100 percent accurate,” he said. “There’s no guess work. It’s beautiful.”
All this has inspired Wolfe to launch a new business, 3dlandscapes.net, offering his drone piloting and design skills to pool builders, cover installers, landscape architects and other trades that could benefit from an eye in the sky.
He’s not limited to his geographical location, either. Using drones-for-hire platforms such as Droners.io and Up Sonder, Wolfe can find licensed pilots to take site photos nationwide. (Yes, the FAA requires a license for commercial drone use, which Wolfe is currently pursuing.)
The market for this sort of service are builders who don’t want to bother with buying their own drones, which can cost upwards of $1,000, and training and licensing their staff to use them, and who could afford hire him. “It’s going to cost a little bit of money,” Wolfe said. “The smaller mom-and-pop places aren’t going to use this, but the middle- to higher-end guys are going to eat this up."