The Future of Drones in the Construction Industry

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Drones Enter Construction

The initial drone kit community understood the implications of the technology early on. Drones could be used for everything from capturing aerial videos for marketing applications to spraying, monitoring and irrigating crops. In construction, the technology is particularly valuable for uses such as monitoring site progress and tracking material quantities.

“The two most broad ways of kind of thinking about [how drones are used on a construction site]: understanding construction progress … using drone photos, drone maps and 3D models to map exactly what’s happened on a construction site,” DroneDeploy CEO Mike Winn explained. “The second way is using drones to help with site modeling—understanding the topology of the land before something gets built and bringing that into BIM software as a basis for planning.”

Whereas surveying is traditionally performed using mobile scanning units, such as LiDAR systems from companies like Trimble and Leica, drones make it possible to capture the exterior of a site much more cost-effectively. High-definition video or photos taken by a drone that’s flown over the site can be stitched together into 3D models and 2D maps using software from several providers, including 3DR, DroneDeploy and Autodesk.

Tristan Randall, a strategic projects executive for Business Development at Autodesk, explained that such models or maps might be captured daily or biweekly to maintain a general record of what’s happening on site, monitoring the movement of materials or dirt on a site. This monitoring can be made more specific, to quantify a given task, such as mapping a stockpile to determine the volume of dirt available on site or that has been removed.

“We’re seeing a lot different use cases, ranging from things like inspecting wind turbines—which may not involve 3D modeling but just using imagery or video—all the way to mapping huge mining sites, where you actually take that data into one of our design platforms like Civil 3D and InfraWorks and perform quantity take-offs, design new facilities and perform quantitative analyses,” Randall said.

Jason Nichols, product marketing manager at Kespry, highlighted the use of preconstruction work. “D&T Construction is using drones to verify existing elevations on a job before it begins and track the progress of active earthwork operations,” Nichols said. “Companies like D&T are also improving the safety of field personnel by flying above active operations and can map areas in minutes that would typically take hours. The data results in a high resolution 2D and 3D imagery of the entire site that is used to create an accurate topographic map and calculate cut/fill quantities for any earthwork activity.”

Hugh McFall, product marketing manager for 3DR, added, “[D]rones are making it possible to perform topographic surveys at least 6X faster and at a fraction of the cost. Regularly collecting data with drones helps construction firms perform ongoing QA/QC on their projects—namely, they can compare as-designed to as-built by overlaying their design files on an orthomosaic created by a drone software platform, and spot issues before they become too difficult or costly to fix. Drones are also helping improve safety on-site. For example, instead of having their field personnel climbing stockpiles and risking slipping and falling, many of our customers use Site Scan to perform these measurements from the sky, while their team is safe on the ground.”

What’s It Take to Fly a Drone?

Whereas, in the past, the ability to capture data of an entire site would require the use of a helicopter or other vehicle, a drone can now be used for a fraction of the cost. But how easy is it to fly a drone?

DroneDeploy’s Mike Winn pointed out that modern drones don’t require the skills one might think to fly them. In fact, current drones fly autonomously, capturing images at designated control points, though they still require a human to monitor the flight. “Interestingly, in the past few years, the drones have very sophisticated sense and avoid technology. If there’s an object in their flight path, they can avoid it,” Winn said.

Hugh McFall, from 3DR, added that, despite this ease, companies may still need some help in deploying the technology. “That said, there are a few things that any company bringing drones onto their projects needs to consider. Our customer success team, who work directly with engineering and construction firms every day, often advises new customers to ensure they have a dedicated drone pilot who can ‘own’ drone operations and become the resident drone expert within their organization. They need to become Part 107 certified as well, which enables them to fly drones for commercial purposes,” he explained.

The Future of Drones in Construction

Given the growth predicted by Gartner and Goldman Sachs, what does the future of drones in the AEC industry look like?

Hugh McFall, of 3DR, put an emphasis on the software. “Here at 3DR, we believe that the future of drones in construction isn’t about the drone per se; it’s about the data it collects,” McFall said. “Now that drones can be flown easily and reliably and collect a ton of useful data, the challenge going forward is to best integrate this data seamlessly across an organization and its projects, and making this data accessible to key stakeholders such as owners, subcontractors and more.”

As a software company, Autodesk, too, is focused on what happens to the data. Specifically, the company wants that data dealt with in more automatic and sophisticated ways. This includes automatically extracting insights using machine learning, image analysis and feature recognition.

“Those are the tools that are going to scale the technology up, taking an already robust return on investment and making an indispensable tool for any construction site,” Randall said. “We’re likely 1-2 years away from that happening.”

Chris Harman, from Atkins, was able to provide his insights from the point of view of an engineering firm. In addition to improved software, which will make it possible to capture discrepancies between as-built projects and plans, as well as actual progress versus the project schedule, Harman sees developments occurring as they relate to data.

“As we focus on data capture and metrics, I think we will see the industry plan and implement projects more efficiently,” Harman said. “In the future, a daily drone flight of a project site may not only provide data to build a model that checks designs against schedules; it could also report on equipment, personnel, means and methods for construction. Data may be scanned by artificially intelligent applications to assess safety or environmental hazards, which will lead to smarter decisions and more efficient project delivery.”

One company that is already implementing deep learning and machine vision in construction is a new startup called Doxel. Because drones only capture the exterior of a project site, Doxel is using a combination of drones and rovers armed with LiDAR scanners and HD cameras to roam the interior of a project at the end of the workday.

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