Highways often get start with a view from the air

By KATHERINE WINDER Special to The Frederick News-Post

FREDERICK – Next time you drive your car remember this: That road was probably built long after an aerial photograph was taken on nine-inch-by-nine-inch film with a $450,000 camera, weighing 350 pounds, mounted in a hole in the bottom of a small plane. That film was digitized and made into a highly detailed map that could determine down to the inch just how much dirt would need to be moved to build that road, the best alignment of the road for drainage purposes, and many more intricate details.

"If you engineer something like building a building or a road, it has to start with a highly detailed map," said Richard Crouse, owner of Richard Crouse and Associates (RC&A). "Those maps are designed using aerial photographs."

RC&A, based at the Frederick Municipal Airport, takes aerial photographs for the purpose of surveying land and mapping. Most of the pictures they take are a far cry from decorative photographs of, for example, a stadium from above, although they occasionally develop those kinds of photographs.

More likely, an engineering company will hire RC&A to do an aerial survey. That engineering company may have been hired by a government agency to create maps for planning purposes. The planning process begins with RC&A taking aerial photographs anywhere from 300 feet above ground level to 24,000 feet. The photographs are delivered to the engineering company, which develops them into three-dimensional images, and eventually, highly-detailed maps. The maps can be used for a wide variety of projects ranging from the construction of a new road to the installation of a new sewage system to determining the health of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Technology, computers and GPS (geographic information systems) have increased the value of geospatial information more and more every year," Mr. Crouse said. The maps "solve all kinds of geospatial problems."

One of RC&A's projects was to photograph the Dulles Toll Road in northern Virginia prior to construction to add lanes. Most of the surveying was done in the l Jet Ranger at around 300 to 500 feet above the ground. Surveying the land from the air as opposed to from the ground spared commuters traffic congestion, decreased the potential for accidents, and increases the level of accuracy.

Accuracy is also assured by flying in perfect weather conditions, which, for aerial surveying, are on sunny days when the sun angle is good and there is little vegetation. That means a pilot and photographer may spend a lot of time waiting around for the perfect conditions.

Tommy Toftestuen flies the Bell Jet Ranger 206B helicopter for RC&A and says he enjoys his job. "I get to travel to so many different places," Mr. Toftestuen said. "It's never the same."

And the flying is never dull. One job required him to fly the length of the runways at BWI at a very low altitude while big commercial jets were taking off and landing just above the helicopter.

One of the biggest challenges, Mr. Toftestuen said, is negotiating with air traffic controllers. The sites that need to be photographed can be in the way of arriving and departing aircraft at busy airports.

"It can get hectic with the controllers, but when we get something done, it feels rewarding," he said. Scott Crutchley, a photographer for RC&A who often flies with Mr. Toftestuen, agrees.

"I have a mobile office," Mr. Crutchley said. "I get to spend the day in a [helicopter] and go all over the place."

RC&A has been hired to photograph projects all over the country because the Jet Ranger is one-of-akind. It is the only one in the United States that has a camera mounted in a hole in the belly of the aircraft. There are only a handful of other helicopters in the country used to take aerial photography, but in those aircraft, the camera is mounted in a basket outside of the helicopter.

"It was an opportunity we saw," Mr. Crouse said, and it is one of many that have paid off.

RC&A has grown steadily at roughly 15 percent almost every year since its inception. When Mr. Crouse founded the company in 1990, he was the sole photographer and had one employee, one plane and one camera. Today, the company has grown to include six airplanes, one helicopter, seven cameras, 20 employees in Frederick and an office in Spartanburg, S.C. It seems as though the business will continue to do well because the need for aerial surveying continues to increase.

"The Earth isn't growing," Mr. Crouse said. "They aren't making more land. So the relative value of land increases every year."

Mr. Crouse's expertise in the industry began to develop before he was a teenager. His father, Richard Crouse Sr., founded PhotoScience, Inc., an aerial photography and photogrammetric mapping company, in 1955, where Mr. Crouse worked for several years before founding RC&A. PhotoScience still exists today under new ownership and is now called EarthData. The two companies know each other well and work together on large projects.

"We use subcontractors who can give us high quality work quickly and efficiently," said Mary Hiatt, senior vice president for EarthData. "Because of their dependability and experience, they are very valuable to us."

Frederick County has utilized RC&A's services for developing its GIS (Geographic Information Systems) program. The GIS has many purposes including mapping roads, schools, land elevation, watershed areas and agricultural preservation. The county hired mapping company, Vargis LLC in Virginia, which subcontracted RC&A to do the aerial photography in 2005, according to Marshal Stevenson III, Frederick County GIS Manager.

Spring is the busiest season for RC&A because the leaves are off the trees, there is usually no snow on the ground and the sun angle is high.

Wherever you are reading this, remember this: an aerial survey of that land may have been produced to determine where every cubic yard of dirt was to be put, if it is near a wetland, or, maybe even, how many acres had been defoliated by gypsy moths.

The Frederick News Post – Frederick, MD

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