The Impact of Drones in Construction

I recently spoke to a group of over 800 construction industry executives, and the synopsis of my presentation is included in this post.

Most of you may ask how would my job site benefit from using a drone? There are so many moving parts being performed on each site and these tasks change frequently so how can you monitor them? When construction lags behind, you normally hear it was due to problems with planning, coordination, and communication. The use of drones will allow the contractor, property owner, or investor to be able to see which areas need improvement and are causing delays. 

As of today, aerial photography is the main reason for construction companies to use a drone. The no-brainer application is for those companies that already employ a helicopter service to take photos; using a drone is more convenient, less costly, safer, and provides higher quality photos. On projects that rely on helicopters, the cost/benefit of using a drone is obvious: helicopters are expensive and risky. A staple of the construction industry today is “progress updates” on a project.  These are typically done on a weekly or monthly basis, with the “flight plan” being the same each time. This “progress reporting” is especially beneficial when any principals in the project are not in the same locale.

According to a survey conducted by the Jacksonville District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, UAVs are fast becoming a new, favorite tool in construction:

KEY POINTS:

  • 76% use for “job progress tracking”
  • 66% use in future marketing
  • 20% for mapping and surveying
  • Other uses included:
    • Inspection of inaccessible areas
    • Surveillance
    • Laser scanning for Building Information Models

Drones have a high liability factor which requires insurance for the drone itself along with separate insurance for the job site. Drones can cause distractions to workers and may potentially cause an accident if the employee is not notified that the drone will be flying around. 

Maintenance is also a key factor for UAV’s and it’s critical to keep a drone fleet in optimal condition for safe operations, as any malfunction can cause an accident. 

Lastly, there is the risk factor to consider relative to respecting people’s privacy. Using drones in a responsible and ethical manner will ultimately lead to a lower risk profile as well as greater public acceptance of this controversial new technology.

Since workers assume that they have an expectation of privacy, simple precautions must be taken to avoid breaching an individual’s privacy. This could include gaining the person’s consent to being filmed and taking care not to publish any images or material captured without their consent. This is something that is worked out with the construction firm prior to an flight operations.

As technology continues to advance, things such as ultra-high-resolution cameras mounted on drones will allow for zeroing in on very detailed areas of a job site, providing for remote monitoring of not just progress, but to identify and correct quality-control issues, such as spotting corrosion on a particular component.

And as with all things “battery-powered”, as advances take place that allow for longer flight times, the drone operators will become even faster, more efficient AND more cost effective due to “staying in the air” for longer periods. Right now, flight times range from 15 to 22 minutes, but within 5 years there are predictions of that being potentially doubled.

NASA began a national test this week at 6 sites to validate their “UAV Air Traffic Control System” as governments and companies look to the potential of remote deployment of drones on a large scale basis.

One use not yet seen is for transporting materials. It is foreseeable that one day drones can be used to save money in transporting small payloads of parts, supplies, and materials on high-rise projects and on vertical construction.

The value of drones in construction, at least for the time being, is more or less tied to their ability to venture where humans and heavy machinery cannot. This dictates that the vehicles remain small, agile and with minimal payload, zipping around with onboard high-res cameras and relaying progress shots and aerial surveys to construction teams on the ground.

As regulations for drone use in a commercial application become more uniform, the construction industry will undoubtedly find many more uses than for camera monitoring of a site in real time.

Right now, drone technology is providing a competitive edge to the companies who’ve successfully adopted it. The ability to better communicate through accurate maps and data, and to have highly quantitative means of measuring their progress against a schedule is a major benefit. In the future, the construction industry will realize additional benefits such as a much better safety record and fewer projects that are completely late and off budget.

Doug BensonComment