Why drones are a 'no-brainer' for top contractor McCarthy
A manager from one of the top U.S. construction firms said this week that while implementation has its challenges, drones are easier to make use of than it might seem.
If you’re a contractor that hasn’t already witnessed drones buzzing overhead at your jobsites, chances are that you will in due time. The facts are clear and ubiquitous: Adoption of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is growing faster in construction than in any other industry, and soon enough, drones will fly above almost every construction site possible to monitor project status and help keep workers safe.
That was the predominant message underlying Tuesday’s webinar from Engineering-News Record, titled Leveraging Drones on the Job Site: Why UAVs are Transforming the Construction Industry, during which drone software and hardware providers espoused the values of using their products.
But one of the panelists, a manager for McCarthy Building Cos., offered a perspective that might be considered more refreshing to a construction company still on the fence about implementing UAVs in its projects: Drones are a lot easier to employ than you might think.
Prepare for liftoff
“Start slow,” said Ryan Moret of McCarthy. “My advice would be to focus on getting one drone, getting a buy-in from the team, and seeing how it goes.”
Drones are a commodity at this point, the field solutions manager claimed, and they can always be sold on the aftermarket if they don’t work out. “Start building up that trust with the tools and the data they put out," he said. "Learn from experience. Go out and fly some sites, take photos and see which work and which don’t.”
McCarthy, ranked in the top 20 of ENR’s 2018 list of top contractors by revenue, started using its first drone operated by a single pilot just last year, and has since ramped up its fleet to 25 pilots and counting on as many job sites nationwide. Although Moret said McCarthy ventured into UAVs with a drone that could essentially “be purchased at a hobby shop,” the use of the small, unobtrusive vehicles quickly became a gamer-changer on its jobsites.
Drones have become a “no-brainer” for McCarthy, Moret continued. “Now we’re trying to get drones on every jobsite in which it makes sense.”
Don’t drone on
One of the most beneficial transformations drones offer McCarthy, he said, is in the realms of communication. Drones take photos that offer tools to quickly and effectively show, rather than tell, what’s going on with a project and what needs to be done. Drones “absolutely change the game in communication,” according to Moret. In construction, he said, “A photo is worth a thousand words, and potentially millions of dollars.”
A lot less is “lost in translation” when a contractor like McCarthy can show subcontractors and stakeholders a visual in real-time, which drones can provide with something as simple as a mounted camera — which even the most entry-level models provide.
Add-ons are as complex as thermographers, which can be used for complicated inspection processes, such as detecting an electrical leak or mapping drainage flows on a site. For those essentially simple and very nuanced jobs, McCarthy uses the DJI Mavic Pro and DJI Inspire series, respectively. For most uses, which fall in between those extremes, the firm uses the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, its “bread and butter.”
Overlays can be added to photos captured by the hardware through the use of included digital applications on a computer or mobile device. Photographs can be matched with CAD and other BIM documents to show exactly how physical objects on the site line up with plans.
With photos and the overlays, drones are a valuable tool for claims adjustment, added another one of the webinar's three panelists, Jono Millin, a founder of DroneDeploy. “All of these photographs start to become interesting forms of documentation,” he said. General contractors use this data for claims mitigation. “It’s no longer a situation of, ‘he said, she said.’ ” Instead, drones provide almost undeniable hard data that can get everyone on the same page with proof of how a jobsite looked on a day-to-day basis or in real-time.
Moret said that McCarthy can track what its subcontractors are doing and spot inefficiencies in workflows such as moving material from one place to the next, for example. He recalled a time when a trucking company estimated from the ground that it had laid $700 worth of material, but a drone’s detailed images provided proof to both parties that a charge of only $500 was in order.
The only other way to get detailed images of a jobsite, other than by using drones, Millin emphasized, is to go the complicated and costly route of hiring a helicopter to fly over the site.
Drones have also helped McCarthy keep its employees out of harm’s way, Moret continued, and safety may be one of the technology’s biggest benefits apart from increased productivity.
“With these high-resolution cameras, we find ourselves getting into a lot of inspection work,” he added. “We started out using drones for things like windows and steel inspections. In those cases, instead of putting someone in a manlift, having to do tie-offs and exposing them to fall hazards — not to mention the [costs of the] equipment rental — we can fly a drone around a building, take close-up photos of seam lines and metal panels, for example, and if we see anything that [doesn’t look right], we can tag the location to deal with it.”
Drones can even fly low enough to provide, in real-time, a visual of whether an employee is wearing a hardhat or not, he added.
“The photos tell a story,” he concluded. “At the end of the day, a contractor’s job is to get everyone on the same page and to communicate change.”
Share the air
Implementing drones is not without challenges, however, and when Construction Dive asked Moret what the biggest roadblock may be to a contractor trying to get drones off the ground, he answered, “Airspace. We do a lot of projects in urban areas, and airports happen to be in a lot of cities. Knowing the airspace ahead of time and being able to plan for that makes a big difference to getting approval. That’s [McCarthy’s] biggest hurdle right now.”
However, Moret mentioned that, starting last November, the Federal Aviation Administration launched its Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program at select airports to speed up approval processes for drones, and according to the FAA’s website, the administration is rolling the program out nationwide.
Also, while drones are unmanned, they often require a human pilot, which could be another challenge for contractors trying to get drones off the ground, the panelists concurred. To fly a drone commercially, operators need a license under under Part 107 of the FAA regulations. However, more and more services — including drone solutions providers — are offering experienced pilots on demand, if a contractor does not or cannot train or hire its own dedicated pilots.