This feature is part of a series that takes an in-depth look at drones in construction. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
Commercial drone use is taking off in the construction industry. From aerial photography to topographical mapping to volumetric analysis, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles has been a boon for construction firms hoping to shave cost and time off their projects.
Estimates by PricewaterhouseCoopers put drone-powered labor sources for infrastructure at a market value of $45.2 billion. Today, a growing number of construction companies are employing drones in the field. The following five trends define the current application of drones in the industry and indicate where the technology is headed.
1. Construction and equipment companies are teaming up with drone service providers
From drone company Skycatch’s partnership with heavy machinery maker Komatsu to Caterpillar’s recent investment in drone software startup Airware and to the new alliance between John Deere and Kespry, partnerships between construction companies, UAV service providers and equipment makers are expected to continue.
For Dick Zhang, founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based drone company Identified Technologies, these partnerships stand to provide mutual benefits. “It’s all about driving progress, productivity and helping [construction companies] win jobs,” Zhang said. Across the board, fully managed drone solutions — like Identified Technologies' — can help construction users select the right hardware and software from the multitude of options in the marketplace today. “Much like how most [construction workers] don’t manage their own servers, they shouldn’t be managing their own end-to-end drone solution,” he said.
2. Contractors are shifting from desktop to cloud software
As job sites become more high-tech, companies are making the switch to cloud-based systems that make data-sharing and visualization more accessible to their crews. “It used to be that there was the classic software, or [construction professionals] would say ‘Let’s have a desktop program and we’ll look at pictures that way,’” Zhang said. “There’s been a huge trend toward consuming this information in the cloud or in a web browser for a one-stop place for pictures and analytics.”
Russ Burns, president of Chicago-based AEC firm Clayco, said the shift will continue as companies begin to understand what data can be mined from their projects and the software itself is updated to reflect the need to gather that information. "Ultimately, it’s going to be the industry that drives this process, not the software itself," Burns said.
The cloud allows contractors to sync drone data with BIM more efficiently. This capability gives construction professionals precise 2-D and 3-D outputs to identify the potential for error before it becomes a costly fix, helping keep projects on time and within budget.
3. Aerial surveillance is informing logistics and reducing error potential
In recent years, commercial and recreational users could purchase relatively affordable drones for tasks such as aerial photography or video capture for surveying or marketing purposes. Those uses are still common, but companies are increasingly relying on drones for a range of purposes from tracking project progress to comparing designs with as-built constructions.
Christian Sanz, founder and CEO of San Francisco–based drone software company Skycatch, said the move is all about companies realizing the need to become educated in artificial intelligence and to make better use of their data. "The data is now automated and more accurate, which frees up humans to do the critical thinking necessary to make informed decisions, saving time and minimizing error," he said.
With drones’ ability to map hundreds of acres in minutes and to turn that input into easily navigable data, construction workers can get an idea of a project’s progress and use that data to plan costs and schedules accordingly.
Workers’ access to topographical maps and models, in addition to volumetric measurements — such as those used for analyzing earth-moving operations — helps inform and manage a project’s pace when it comes to data crunching. For Zhang, drone data is not only a high-tech option for the job site, but it’s also an easier way to determine the potential for error, to measure a project’s adherence to schedule and to calculate costs in a way that simplifies project work and billings later on.
For Identified Technologies, the next step came with its announcement earlier this month at ConExpo in Las Vegas that the company will be offering technology connecting all on-site vehicles. Called Truck IQ, the system will connect and synthesize job site vehicle load and cycle times with aerial drone data to reduce error, lower costs and push earth-moving projects along more efficiently.
4. Federal Aviation Administration rulemaking will determine how construction companies use drones
The summer 2016 release of Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations has made drone use more accessible to various industries, but construction companies, among others, still must navigate legal red tape to find new uses for the technology beyond the general guidelines the current rules provide. Farah Wahab, product marketing manager for Skycatch, said many companies are training their staff according to Part 107's specifications and are moving their operations in-house.
"For a company just getting its feet wet and trying its first map, a [third-party] drone service provider is useful," she said. "For companies serious about using drone data, which most reputable builders are by now, it is definitely worth the investment to it bring in-house ... because [construction professionals] are the actual practitioners and end-users of the data."
5. Drones are only going to become more prevalent on the job site
Drone technology is becoming more influential in all aspects of a project’s development. Many firms are partnering with third-party service providers to collect visual data for topographical mapping, or are using drones to process data that is then transmitted and translated into use for heavy machinery. “The biggest point you’ll see is that drones are going to become much more connected to everything else on the job site,” Zhang said. “Drones were great in their own vacuum, but they’re becoming orders more impactful.
According to Burns, the demand for drones is already prevalent. The question now is how to provide an easier path for workers to secure such technology for the job site, as well as how to synthesize the data collected by drones in a way that's both manageable and relatable to the work being done. "This industry is ripe for disruption," Burns said. "The drone itself isn't the game-changer, but the data it can give us access to is going to be.