Drones In Construction - Easier. Better. Faster. Safer.

Words: Christopher Rodermond

Words: Chris Rodermond
Photos: Natnan Srisuwan

Madness, he thought. The ultimate horror for our paranoid culture; vicious unseen mechanical entities that flit at the edges of our vision, that can go anywhere, that are in our very midst. And there may be an unlimited number of them. One of them following each of us… - Vulcan’s Hammer by Philip K. Dick, 1960

In the last decade, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have gone from a nascent industry dominated by military contractors to become critical in a wide array of industries like media production and as a mainstream hobby enjoyed by thousands. Despite the exponential growth in the industry, we have yet to see drones integrating into our general daily lives in a significant way. While we might all rightly expect drones to be a part of our cityscapes in the not too distant future, the timeline and problems which will be solved by drones are not yet that clear. 

However, the use of drones in the construction industry has been adopted and deployed to a great extent over the last few years with significant impacts. Construction companies of all types have found and highlighted how the deployment of drones to assist in projects have been responsible for savings on time and costs while increasing safety and security on construction sites. 

The construction industry has the advantages of being close to the public and thus an early adopter of the technology. Still, because this is relatively new, many challenges are being addressed and solved. With those risks come tremendous opportunities.

If you have not yet seen or used drones on the worksite, chances are, you will soon do so. The FAA reports 1,533,596 drones registered in the United States, with 428,245 registered as Commercial Drones. Not only that, there are currently 162,185 Remote Pilots Certified in the United States.

Big money is also involved. A 2019 study by Market Study Report on the growth forecast for the commercial drone market notes that the 2019 market was calculated at 2.65B in 2018 with projected market size of 16.2B USD by 2025, a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 25.4%

Venture capital is investing heavily in drone technology. According to a recent article in Forbes, “Over the period from 2012 to June 2019, venture capitalists have invested $2.6 billion in drone companies to take advantage of the large consumer drone market and the rapidly growing commercial drone market.”

Many companies operate in the industry. Drone manufacturers, third party Data Processors and Platform providers, and Operators piloting and managing the projects. Right now, the drone manufacturing business is dominated by a Chinese company called DJI, which has an estimated 70% of the drone market. 

Private companies involved in the drone industry and the media have taken up the topic, and there are much press and discussion online regarding the issues and the impacts of drones on the construction industry. 

A case study prepared in 2016 by Accenture notes that UAVs can be used, in general, “to automate simple tasks and reduce labor costs significantly, while providing better accuracy through the use of multiple sensors on the same platform. They are used in quarries for topographic surveys and the measurement of reserves and storage volumes. 

They allow quicker stock assessments with less workforce needed. UAVs can also replace workers on operations that normally require the shutdown of machinery, avoiding costly downtime, and the use of expensive security equipment. For example, they are used for maintenance operations in the utility industry to keep refineries and rigs operational during inspections.”

BIM Autodesk, the construction industry vendor, and technology platform has an article called the Beginner’s Guide to Using Drones for Construction Management, which lists ten benefits of UAVs used in construction, which are:

1. Win more business. Drone photography can be an important sales tool. Your improved surveying and planning capabilities will also set you apart from the competition.

2. Improve the owner’s visibility. Use drone photography to help owners visualize the final project, and see how the project is progressing while under construction.

3. Iterate faster during the bid phase. Drone surveys can help you put the virtual design in the context of real conditions and thus better engage the entire team.

4. Instill client confidence. All of the above benefits help you build client confidence.

5. Improve asset and material management. Drones equipped with streaming video capability can help you monitor the job site for suspicious activity, and identify theft as it’s happening. Plus, your teams can easily monitor locations and quantities of assets and materials at a glance, to ensure it will be there when you need it.

6. Improve invoicing accuracy. Drones enable you to monitor work completion more effectively, and bill accordingly.

7. Improve quality. Drones vastly increase your ability to complete quality inspections in large and hard to reach areas in an efficient manner.

8. Minimize rework. Increasing the number of inspections you make enables you to catch more mistakes before they become a bigger problem, thus reducing the amount of rework needed.

9. Improve safety. Perform inspections in dangerous areas without putting anyone at risk. Drones also allow you to identify and mitigate potential hazards before they cause harm.

10. Mitigate litigation. Drones can increase site documentation to reduce the likelihood of litigation and increase your defensibility.

Companies like DroneDeploy and Kespry offer data, case studies, and examples of how their products and services are used within the construction industry. 

For example, Kespry claim that drones on a construction project can “reduce up to 20% of total project costs by eliminating rework through the regular cut and fill analysis of drone data” as well as eliminating “up to 10% of earthmoving costs through more accurate volumetric analysis”. 

Dave King, CEO of Steel City Drones, discusses in an article posted at contructionexec.com, the options a company faces when looking to implement drones for a construction project. He mentions the details of hiring a qualified contractor or doing the work in house and the various questions that must be answered and costs to consider for either option. 

Another interesting and informative article featured on the Big Rentz Equipment Rental Platform highlights the “6 Profitable Ways Drones In Construction are Changing Projects”. These include “topographic mapping and land surveys, equipment tracking, remote monitoring and progress reports, security surveillance, personnel safety, and structure inspection and photography.” 

Several sources in our research noted that thermal imaging is an important maintenance and testing application for construction projects only recently maturing. Scanning a building efficiently and safely with thermal imaging does short work of identifying areas where additional work must be conducted to prevent heat loss or make sure an area has been sufficiently insulated.

A blog post at RobotShop.com notes several challenges that must be considered when deploying drone technology, including:

●     Commercial drone use generally requires two people to operate them. The operators need experience in drone control and a vast understanding of the route. It’s also imperative for a drone operator to be experienced with the specific type of drone being used and especially its sensor.

●     Weather can also be a problem for drone use. Some conditions may prevent drone use entirely, or at the very least, add some additional challenges. Heavy wind can prevent a drone from safely traversing a site, and the cloud coverage can limit the correct images from being taken entirely.

●     While there are cost savings to be had, drones themselves can be expensive and include a high cost initially. The long-run savings are still there for most in the construction industry, but the up-front cost is enough to turn some off of drone use. However, like most technology, the cost should reduce as the tech improves.

The relatively low cost to own and operate drones make them a disruptive technology that will soon be deployed by every size business depending on their budget and needs. As a society, we have only scratched the surface in regards to how drones can be used, and much experimenting and innovation is going on in a few industries, including the construction industry. Once certain safety measures are fully accounted for and licensing and waivers become streamlined and codified, the move to more ubiquitous drone usage will follow. Furthermore, as algorithmic technology and AI-enhanced data analysis continue to provide new insights into how we do business and solve problems, drones will play the most important role in that data collection. Couple those factors with the rollout of 5G wireless technology and the vast amounts of data that will be able to flow to and from drones, and the way we lead our lives in the years to come could change dramatically. Right now, the construction industry and those employed in its sphere will be at the forefront of developing processes and applications for drone use, like it or not.

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