Historically, the term drone was often synonymous with the military—and were very large and expensive pieces of equipment. However, this has changed at a rapid clip in the last five years. Today, drones—also often known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—are being used by both businesses and hobbyists alike, and the devices themselves have changed too.
Now, drones have increased flight times, semi-autonomous flight capabilities, higher resolution imagery, higher quality physical hardware, with better camera, sense, and avoid equipment, and a variety of other new payloads such as LIDAR. At the same time, the software to fly drones, analyze the images they capture, and manage complex drone programs has also come a long way.
Basically, one might even say, drones are more foolproof than they were even just a few years ago, and many will pretty much fly themselves if used in conjunction with software that enables planning and autonomous flight. Still, if something goes wrong, the less experienced are unprepared, and need to recognize how drones can have a significant impact on the task at hand.
Construction Evolves with Drones
These flying devices are also changing the way the construction industry performs business. Today, drones are helping surveyors and contractors with preconstruction surveying, volumetric analysis, and project progress or site safety, among other functions.
“Traditional surveying and inspection methods can be time consuming, expensive, and dangerous,” explains Jason Farhadi, PR representative for Yuneec. “Drone utilization assists in reducing project costs and increasing profits by providing real-time information.”
Drones also help make construction progress tracking and quality monitoring easier, faster, and safer. Recurring monthly, or even weekly, flights and data processing can create valuable deliverables such as orthomosaics with a site plan overlay to easily compare construction progress to plan.
Carmen Smith, vice president of marketing, Measure, the Drone-as-a-Service Co., explains, “A Web portal with an interactive orthomosaic and 360-degree panorama images over the building can document construction progress over time and also monitor factors such as water outflow and mention areas to track changes as the result of weather events. All of this intelligence can be gathered, analyzed, and reviewed without setting foot into the active construction site.”
But perhaps one of the biggest changes drones will have on the construction industry today is they are causing a shift in the way construction professionals communicate with other construction partners.
“We can hold meetings weekly in the job trailer and use the imagery captured by the eyes that can be commanded to go look at any point of interest,” says Richard Evans, IT manager, SpawGlass. “Going over the state of the job using this visual communication is much more efficient and complete way of getting the data. Can you picture the whole group walking around throughout the job in order to be able to see the whole picture?”
Preparing for Flight
Proficiency with drones depending both on training and best practices, as the pilot needs to be prepared for a safe and consistent drone flight.
Evans goes as far as to say, “The safety of everyone in the flight zone is (the drone pilot’s) responsibility.” He adds, “Part 107 remote license” is required if a worker intends to fly for hire, and passing the test does take some study.
Two very important training tools include someone who can train one-on-one and a simulator.
Another critical factor to keep in mind is that flying drones for data collection on a jobsite is not the same as flying recreationally. This requires learning both the advanced flight skills and the industry best practices in safety, flight operations, and regulatory compliance to ensure a flight is both legal and safe.
“Ultimately, you may be managing multiple drones, and having consistent hardware, pilot training, and processes will make your program much easier to grow and manage successfully,” adds Smith.
Part 107 training is available both online and drone providers also offer advanced flight training specific to the construction industry.
Smith suggests looking for a training provider with real world experience flying and managing their own drone mission that is construction specific, as workers will want to learn proven process and techniques that have resulted in successful data collection and a high safety record.
Finally, another key element to consider before taking flight is what information will be gathered and matching those requirements with the proper airframe and software.
Farhadi explains, “Prioritizing your needs will help you save time and money on your initial investment, but don’t short change yourself either as you do need some future proofing. Lastly, know your airframe and your abilities, be sure to obtain your 107 certification, proper insurance, and institute policies and procedures.”
Drones as a Service
Still, even with drones basically being able to “fly themselves,” the growing trend of drones-as-a-service continues, giving construction professionals the option to outsource.
Evans explains that this trend has been accelerating rapidly, with today’s hardware being able to do much more than just photography.
Another reason is that today more and more companies are realizing the value of drone technology, but not all of them are a good match for an in-house drone program.
“Some companies may need drones less frequently, may have more complex data analysis needs, or simply may not want their employees to fly,” says Smith. “A drone service provider is an excellent solution, and professional drone services are now available nationwide. Just make sure you’ve properly vetted your vendor to ensure they are an experienced commercial provider with safe, legal, and insured operations.”
Drones are indicative of a growing trend to find new ways to increase efficiency and improve jobsite safety. Solutions that can enable intelligence business decisions, while reducing hazardous manhours, are essential in construction today.
Still, Smith cautions that while drones are essentially new sources of data, more data does not always necessarily mean better data.
“Always keep your information needs and pain points in mind as you explore drones and choose a platform or provider. Make sure the aerial data collected is high quality and integrates with your existing process,” Smith continues. “Drones should provide incremental value in your workflow, not cause a disruption.”