By improving site surveillance, worker safety and resource management, this flying robot technology could make construction greener and more efficient than ever.
Drones, once a hobby for a few enthusiasts, are now prominently featured across a number of professional fields. Today, delivery and cargo drones transport goods across increasing distances, military drones spy on enemy combatants, and ag-drones engage in precision farming.
More than any other industry, however, drones are being put to use on construction worksites, with their use surging by 239 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to drone software manufacturer DroneDeploy. Infrastructure work now makes up 35.5 percent of professional drone use, far ahead of the next two biggest drone-using industries, agriculture (25.5 percent) and transportation (10.2 percent).
Typically operated by project managers, technology managers and superintendents, construction drones have many functions, as they can be used in every phase of the project lifecycle. Equipped with GPS technology, as well as cameras and sensors that can capture images, video, thermal readings and infrared data, drones can help improve project conceptualization, planning, measurement, building, management, reporting, monitoring, inspection, safety, security and even marketing.
Drones are revolutionizing construction at a breakneck pace. Here are eight ways drones are changing construction:
- Preconstruction surveying and mapping: Drones have the ability to survey and map large geographic areas, quickly helping building planners get a sense of a site’s topography. With high-resolution drone imaging, construction teams can develop 3D models to help them identify constructability challenges ahead of time, make accurate estimates, and sufficiently prepare for the job.
Drone mapping and modeling can also be conducted throughout a project and the data can be used by architects, engineers, and others in conjunction with leading construction software programs, including AutoCAD, Bluebeam, Civil 3D, BIM 360, Procore and others.
- On-site measurements: On a smaller scale, drones can additionally be used to make various measurements on a worksite, including measuring stockpiles of materials, such as piles of fill dirt, sand or gravel. Increasingly, builders are using drones in coordination with ground control points (GCPs), which are ground markers equipped with GPS to calculate exact global positioning. This approach to making site measurements has skyrocketed in recent years, as it achieves up to 99 percent accuracy when measuring distance, area and volume.
- Progress reports: A drone’s ability to observe and record almost anything on a worksite makes it a valuable tool for keeping all relevant parties up-to-date with accurate information about the project’s progress. Clients appreciate a high level of access and visibility that helps them feel assured of quality control, and everyone from owners to managers to laborers are able to stay updated, on the same page and able to identify anything that looks wrong or out of place.
- Workforce monitoring: Many project managers have also turned to drones for the general supervision of their workers. Many places of employment record the day-to-day activities at their business, but mounted cameras don’t always work on a construction site where structures, equipment and materials are frequently moved around and could impair visibility.
Drones may soon allow for the mobility necessary for supervisors to fully oversee the workforce, which is especially helpful if there are specific concerns that a particular person or group is not adhering to protocol. OSHA has not yet released official protocols for drone inspections; stay tuned.
- Structural and equipment inspections: The maneuverability of drones, which can easily fly around project structures, makes them useful for examining and evaluating stability and repair needs. High-resolution images can provide finer visual details, measurements can determine if a structure is straight or leaning (and by how many degrees), and thermal sensors can identify heat leaks, cold spots and electrical malfunctions. Similarly, a drone may be able to quickly analyze a broken-down piece of machinery and send equipment data to the technician to begin their diagnosis before the equipment even reaches them.
- Safety improvements: Increasingly, drones are being used to make measurements and to even perform simple maintenance on structures like towers, roofs and scaffolding that can be more dangerous for human workers to reach. Regular worksite monitoring with drones can also help managers be on the lookout for on-site safety concerns, such as employees not following safety regulations or structures and equipment that may be loose or unstable. As an added bonus to protecting workers, construction companies that use drone inspections and patrols as preventative and responsive safety measures may be eligible for risk-mitigation insurance discounts, depending on the provider.
Securing equipment and worksites: The construction industry loses $1 billion every year due to equipment theft, and 83 percent of equipment owners have been the victim of theft, according to Equipment Trader. A flyover of the worksite is a fast and easy way for supervisors to ensure that machinery is secure and located where it is supposed to be.
- Likewise, drones are able to be the eye-in-the-sky that can survey the site and check for unauthorized trespassers. Even the presence of patrolling drones may serve as an effective deterrent against thieves. As of now, drones cannot autonomously fly nighttime patrols on their own—they’re currently limited by battery life, an inability to judge if they are sensing authorized or unauthorized personnel, and federal regulations about flying drones at night in certain areas—but the day is soon coming that self-flying drones will be able to survey and secure the worksite.
- Marketing and promotion: Drones are a great way to promote your business. Expert aerial photography can help you show off finished projects with captivating shots that enhance and elevate your company’s portfolio and marketing materials. Drone images, as well as scale models and 3D rendering using data from drone surveys and mapping, can also help prospective clients visualize what you can offer them. And finally, simply the fact that your construction firm uses drones can attract customers who are interested in all the benefits we’ve described above, including receiving those dynamic progress reports, and want to contract a cutting-edge company that uses the latest technology.
Ethan Smith is a content curator for Trader Interactive, a comprehensive digital marketing corporation.