by Richard McPartland
Even small-scale construction projects can benefit from a bird’s eye view. Getting a detailed picture of the lay of the land before construction even begins can be invaluable. And it’s not just aerial pictures or videos, today we can take to the skies to gather accurate measurements that have the ability to greatly speed and improve schemes throughout the project timeline.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, sometimes referred to as UAVs, or more commonly, as drones, are replacing traditional land-surveillance methods and are rapidly changing the way the construction industry works. Indeed, a 2016 report from Goldman Sachs stated that construction will be the biggest user of commercial drones in the coming years - accountable for 11.2billion USD of a projected 100bn USD over the next five years.
How can drones be put to work for construction?
Surveying is obviously a key benefit, as you can collate data to produce accurate surveys and contour maps based on high-resolution point cloud data collected from on high. Many systems even allow for real-time monitoring. Back down on the ground you can then bring design plans to life and make smarter quality assurance decisions by combining building information models with high-resolution point clouds of actual site conditions.
It’s quick and easy to get a drone into the air meaning you can keep a regular eye on your project with repeat flights allowing for frequent updates. Producing weekly maps and sharing these between project participants should ensure your scheme stays on track and any problems are surfaced quickly. Regular updates should also improve site planning and quality control – allowing you to keep a closer eye on logistics, asset management (volumetric measurement of resources is a possibility) and areas of potential risk (perhaps health and safety concerns, or help to prevent theft and vandalism) onsite.
Crucially, drones should save you an incredible amount of time by allowing you to quickly and easily measure distances, areas and volumes in a fraction of the time it would take using more traditional methods.
It’s quick and easy to get a drone into the air meaning you can keep a regular eye on your project with repeat flights allowing for frequent updates.
What are some of the benefits of using drones in construction?
Employ a drone on a project and you will inevitably benefit from improvements in surveying and planning. Accurate information can be gathered quickly and put to work on projects right from the start – but the benefits don’t stop there.
A firm using drones immediately has a catalogue of projects to demonstrate capability and potential as part of the sales and tendering process – and photos, videos and models all have the ability to impress. Such a firm can also boast regular flows of information across the project lifecycle making regular client updates a reality. Such updates can really help keep a client engaged and the whole team focussed on making better decisions in a timely fashion.
Even before contracts are awarded a team able to put a drone into the skies can benefit from a wealth of data on real-world conditions – instilling confidence that proposed design solutions are possible and best suited to conditions on the ground. As the project moves to construction, drone users can keep an eye on assets and materials, more accurately gauge progress and completion and be confident in the quality of work based on highly accurate data, minimising the need for rework.
Drones also have benefits in keeping sites and workers safe and protected, spotting hazards before they occur, and adding to a wealth of information that reduces the likelihood of legal challenges.
How might drones be used across the project lifecycle?
Bidding and investigation - Aerial surveys and data collation can quickly create models that allow teams to better understand feasibility, and whether design solutions are feasible. Such models are also useful in client briefings, providing an early indication of what finished projects will look like.
Design - Design can be informed by real-world data on site conditions. Where questions or doubts are present it's easy to add greater fidelity of survey data or expand the scope of previous datasets. This wealth of data means it's easy to iterate designs in response to conditions.
On-site construction - There's an enormous amount of potential once construction gets underway - helping to track progress, keep tabs on materials, improving visibility and keeping sites safe. The data also provides a useful audit trail should problems arise and ensures any that do are dealt with as soon as they become known.
Handover and maintenance - Marketing collateral can make use of finished models, photos and videos but such data also has a more practical role for facilities management providing insight into as-built conditions.
Even before contracts are awarded a team able to put a drone into the skies can benefit from a wealth of data on real-world conditions.
What kind of drones should I use on my project?
Drones come in many varieties and sizes - some have fixed wings, other units employ a series of blades (three, four, five or eight). The former requiring a runway to get airborne much like a traditional plane, the others able to take off and land vertically much like a helicopter. Fixed wing devices are best suited to surveying significant tracts of land as they can stay airborne for a relatively long time and easily transport a range of sensors. Fixed wing drones are likely to be most expensive. Units with blades are suited for inspection or surveillance actions over shorter flights. It is possible, however, to run power to such a unit by means of a tether from the ground to allow for unlimited flight time.
When considering a drone you need to be mindful of just how much equipment each device can carry (cameras, location and thermal sensors, for example), and how long batteries (and thus flight times) are likely to last. Trying some devices out will help you determine operational range and how easy each unit is to move around.
Buy my own drone or seek a partner organisation?
It's worth considering too whether to invest in your own equipment or outsource to draw on the skills and experiences of a partner. There are benefits to both approaches. Managing drones in-house allows you to retain full control, potentially develop a new revenue stream and have flexibility of when to fly, but costs are likely to be higher, and liability will remain with the owner/operator. Going external is likely to have lower upfront costs and no need for trained staff but control and flexibility will be sacrificed but liability will also lie with the operator.
What does the law say when it comes to drones?
This area continues to evolve and a draft Drone Bill in Spring 2018 is likely to make new impositions. No-fly zones are likely to be established around airports and the police given greater powers to ground those used in suspected criminal activities. Owners are also likely to have to register devices weighing more than 250g and flights are likely to be limited to a maximum of 400ft.
The new laws will aim to strike a balance between safe and responsible use while also allowing drone technology to positively impact on a range of business applications. The clampdown comes as 81 'near miss' incidents involving planes and drones were reported so far this year (up from 71 in 2016 and 29 in 2015 according to pilots' union BALPA).
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