Meet the Alumnus Using Drones to Implement Citywide Mapping in Pflugerville

Texans from Temple to Texarkana recognize the 165-foot structures that protrude from the rolling landscape. Water towers supply residents and passersby with visual and vital usage, but their upkeep is a lesser known storyHistorically, they take manpower life-risking manpowerto inspectThat’s where Alexander Boest-Petersen, BA ’18, comes in navigating a small, flying figure that softly whirs as it rises those 165 feet in minutes to complete an inspection: a drone.  

The UT alumnus has been working on implementing a drone program to conduct citywide mapping in Pflugerville, Texas, which has already reduced safety risks and costsAfter Boest-Petersen graduated, he went to work in the City of Pflugerville Development Services office as a geographic information systems analyst. He moved from working as an intern to implementing a never-before-used drone program, taking the conceptual work he did with drones at UT and making it tangible 

To develop the drone technology, Boest-Petersen combined elements he learned in classes like Remote Sensing” and “Landscape Ecology,” a course taught by geography lecturer Molly Polk. “Our goal is to help students understand the physical world around them and the social connections to the physical world,” she says. “The idea there is so they better understand the world around them, so it can be more just and more sustainable.”  

Other cities have drone programs similar to the one BoestPetersen implemented in Plugerville. He even used some of them for inspiration, but no one else is really using it for mapping, inspection, and asset management,” he says. “They primarily use it for police services and emergency services, like crime scene management or search and rescue. 

In instances like the latter, one simply flies the drone over a crime scene to get a hard copy image of it. 

In the case of a traffic accident, you could go in with a drone, scan that area, and then you’d have what that area looked like, saving time and manpower, he says.  

The geographic information systems office deals in anything geospatial, more commonly described as mapping. The office does everything from addressing subdivisions to checking utilities around the city. They then present the information like Google Maps or distribute it to other various departments dealing with engineering, safety, and city upkeep.  

Boest-Petersen began as an intern in March 2018 before accepting a position in December 2018 as a fulltime analyst, takincharge of subdivision maps and tracking utility services, like water and waste, as well as maintaining city websites and ensuring information remains current and correct 

“He showed a great aptitude for utilities, which is what we predominately use the drone for,” GIS coordinator Sven Griffin says. “He was doing a lot of 3-D work as an intern, and used drones to 3-D print as well, so this opportunity presented itself and it was a good marriage of those two things.”  

Senior GIS analyst Matt Turner, BA ’09, Life Member, says the office considered a drone program before but hadn’t gotten far. He says Boest-Petersen heard the idea, went out on his own, and returned with the technical research, drone capabilities, and software to make the idea a reality.  

 “Alex is a very clever person,” Turner says. “He took a lead on something that would not be here otherwise if it were not for him.” 

Griffin says they plan to expand the program to focus on community engagement. The hope is for more maps and information to be accessible on the city website and for residents to call in and learn about their area. “It will allow us to show citizens what’s going on in their backyard,” he says. 

Boest-Petersen hopes to expand the drone program and share the new technology with other surrounding cities. “Drones are very new, probably only five or six years old,” Boest-Petersen says. “This probably has the potential to become its own office because it’s so intensive.” 

He credits his office for allowing him to explore the idea, but also refers to notebooks from his earliest geography classes, expanding upon those first lessons he learned.  “Sven always says, ‘If you don’t like learning, this isn’t a good field for you,’” Boest-Petersen says.

Photo by Allyson Ortegon.


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