This piece was written by Mike Danielak, the director of strategic planning and business development at Skyward, a provider of services to commercial drone operators such as Hensel Phelps, which it counts as a client. Construction Dive edited this piece, but does not necessarily share the same views as the author.
Before launching its drone operations program in 2015, Hensel Phelps Construction Co. had been using manned helicopter flights, which cost up to $20,000 per flight, to capture aerial video of projects. Now, the construction giant is using unmanned aerial vehicles at a fraction of the cost.
Hensel Phelps’ drone program started out small and scaled over time, the construction giant explains. However, because it started developing its drone operations before many others, it benefited from the competitive advantage of early adoption. Richard Lopez, virtual design and construction manager at Hensel Phelps, saw the potential for unmanned aviation to make design and construction processes more efficient and jumped at the opportunity to spur change within the organization. Now, Hensel Phelps is also offering recommendations for other construction companies to follow suit.
“Hensel Phelps isn’t shy about new technology, as long as it's able to prove value in everything that’s being implemented,” Lopez said. “Early on, we found a company that would fly a drone for us. They had what we were looking for, but they were actually really expensive — there wasn’t a significant cost savings. I thought: there has to be a better way to do this.”
Hensel Phelps started using drones to make marketing videos for clients and for internal use. After replacing helicopters with drones, it expanded its drone utilization to include more projects and services, maximizing its initial investment in the technology.
These days, drones allow the Greeley, Colorado-based contractor to improve the quality of information they supply to their many stakeholders and partners in the following ways.
LiDAR sensors mounted on drones have improved surveying efficiency and accuracy. The company also uses infrared thermal sensors to find HVAC energy efficiency opportunities.
Drones help Hensel Phelps capture cloud points that are incorporated into building information modeling software and provided to architects.
Photogrammetry is providing valuable data on site monitoring and job progress to superintendents and jobsite managers. The firm can supply cardinal direction views to clients and building owners for 3D models, marketing videos and progress updates.
Hensel Phelps also uses drones to inspect exterior flashing — the strips of metal that keep windows in place — on high rise buildings.
Because drones were new to the company, Hensel Phelps wanted to ensure internal stakeholders and executives could see a record of all UAV program aspects in one place.
Hensel Phelps uses Skyward to keep one central drone flight logbook for its entire organization, allowing it to track pilot hours, flight records, and maintenance in the same place where it maintains regulatory compliance.
It’s no surprise that the construction and engineering industries have adopted drones at a faster pace than others in the U.S. According to a qualitative survey conducted in the spring of 2018 by Blue Research (commissioned by Skyward), of companies with revenues $50 million or more annually, 10% are using drones today. Of those, 35% are in construction and engineering. And drone use is on the rise. Overall, 19% of respondents indicated intent to adopt drones in the future. Further, those using drones today stated that their company’s bottom line would suffer if their company did not use drones.
The following are just a few of the ways Hensel Phelps and others in the construction industry receive high return on investment and full value from their drone programs.
Improved worker safety
Hensel Phelps prides itself on safety and has seen drones improve the well-being of its crews. But nationwide statistics on construction jobsite accidents are still jarring.
Unmanned systems make jobsite operations safer by reducing worker exposure to the many hazards field workers face: scaffolding and ladders, toxins during ash pond or smokestack inspections, wiring and other electrical equipment, washed-out access roads beneath high-tension power lines, water hazards during dam and reservoir inspections, and even criminal activity such as illegal drug grows in remote pipeline inspection areas.
Worker safety also hurts companies' bottom line. OSHA oversees approximately 130 million workers employed at more than 8 million worksites around the country. Employers across the nation pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone (workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, legal services), according to the agency.
Then there are the indirect costs that come in the fallout and periphery of accidents, such as training replacement employees, job transfer or restrictions, accident investigation and implementation of corrective measures, lost productivity, repairs of damaged equipment and property and reduced employee morale. Drones stand to sharply reduce these costs for businesses by reducing worker hazards.
More data, more insights
One of the earliest drone use cases in the construction industry involved attaching a high-quality camera to the aircraft and live-streaming the resulting video to a trained inspector on the ground. This capability alone makes drones an attractive proposition for construction and engineering firms, as well as insurers and regulators, each of whom needs to perform frequent and thorough checks to ensure proper protocols are being followed and that structures are safe and constructed according to standards. In addition, the video recorded by a drone’s camera is viewable to anyone in the chain of command, increasing the transparency of such operations.
Nowadays, the possibilities are endless for what can be attached to a drone. From thermal and LiDAR sensors, collision detectors and more, drones are increasing their usefulness in the field and in the office.
A West Coast utility company, for instance, uses drones to inspect utility-scale solar farms. The sensors provide robust geographic information systems (GIS) and orthoimagery data that engineers can then use to improve the end design of the plant. Its sensors also afford the creation of 3D visualizations, enabling the firm to better analyze construction costs and optimize placement of ground-mounted PV panels so they generate the most energy.
The efficiencies drones bring are directly prompting increased adoption in everything from utilities, insurance, retail, real estate and news broadcasting to sports videography and even weddings.
Stantec, a multinational design, architecture and engineering firm, initially used UAVs as a tool for aerial imaging. Now it uses drones for survey mapping, 3D modeling, inspections and even detecting anthropological or paleontological resources on proposed building sites.
With complete drone and data systems, Stantec said it can complete ground surveys up to five times faster than most current solutions, which require significant groundwork before beginning mapping efforts. Compared with conventional topographic mapping methods, the time saved can possibly increase many times faster still. Data end-users will see benefits as well, including full-color point clouds that allow engineers to identify 3D objects more easily than with single-color LiDAR scans, and manual “cleanup” of the raw data is made unnecessary by advanced vegetation removal algorithms.
Like Stantec’s, a drone program may initially get the green light to aid in inspections, but can quickly gain executive trust and buy in — due to the added efficiency and bottom line benefits — and be enlisted to perform additional duties such as inventory management, site mapping, remote sensing and much more.