Ten years ago, who would have predicted that job sites would have tiny flying robots roving through them day and night? While that’s not quite common reality today, it’s drawing closer. In fact, drones have become so affordable and ordinary that it’s a rare job site that doesn’t have one show up, if for no other reason but to take some great photos of the project.
A dramatic decrease in the manufacturing cost of drones a few years ago made them widely available. Matched with a dramatic increase in the availability of accessories including professional grade cameras, survey equipment, and backend software that makes these highly useful to contractors, and drones are quickly becoming a must-have technology.
A well-deployed drone program can dramatically improve surveys, site visibility, progress reporting, safety, and inspection processes, often for a price tag roughly equivalent to a new table saw.
If you’ve been thinking about adding the powerful capabilities of a drone to your job sites, we’re here to help. In this article, we get you started with:
- 10 Benefits of Drones for Construction
- Uses of Drones Throughout the Job Cycle
- Pros and Cons of Going In-House or Outsourcing Drone Work
- Types of Drones Available
- Types of Drone Equipment Available
- Relevant Drone Regulations
10 Benefits of Drones for Construction
Drones are no longer a fringe hobby. For those who deploy them on the job site, they’ve become indispensable. Here are ten ways drones can improve efficiencies and margins on your construction site:
- Win more business. Drone photography can make your project presentations stand out from the crowd. Improve surveying and planning capabilities to really wow your prospects.
- Improve owner’s visibility. Use drone photography to help owners visualize the final project, and see how the project is progressing while under construction.
- Iterate faster during the bid phase. Drone surveys can help you put virtual design in the context of real conditions and thus better engage the entire team.
- Instill client confidence. All of the above benefits help you build client confidence.
- Improve asset and material management. Imagine a site that is monitored 24/7 by video. This is an improvement over the old days of having a security guard walk the site–or a security dog! But it also can create blind spots. Now imagine that a drone, moving in a random pattern that covers the entire site, is streaming video to smart software that intelligently tags suspicious activity and notifies your loss prevention department in real time. Add to this the benefit of monitoring locations and quantities of assets and materials at a glance, to ensure it will be there when you need it, and a drone becomes a very practical asset management tool.
- Improve invoicing accuracy. Drones enable you to monitor work completion more effectively, and bill accordingly.
- Improve quality. Drones vastly can make it easy and fast to complete quality inspections in large and hard to reach areas.
- Minimize rework. Increasing the number of inspections you make enables you to catch more mistakes before they become a bigger problem, thus reducing the amount of rework needed.
- Improve safety. Perform inspections in dangerous areas without putting anyone at risk. Drones also allow you to identify and mitigate potential hazards before they cause harm. Matched with smart safety technology, these safety hazards can be monitored and tagged by software and brought to the attention of safety officers in real time.
- Mitigate litigation. Drones can increase site documentation to reduce the likelihood of litigation, and increase your defensibility.
Uses of Drones Throughout the Construction Lifecycle
A drone program is a terrific investment for construction companies right now. They can be used through the entire construction lifecycle, from feasibility and bidding to handover and maintenance. Here’s how.
Feasibility and Bidding
Drones can be equipped with cameras, geo-location sensors, infrared sensors, and more. The data can then be imported into survey software to create 3D models of existing conditions. This helps with determining feasibility, understanding constructability, and helping owners visualize what the project will look like in the end. It can also be used to identify areas of risk.
Design and Pre-Construction
Drone surveys help inject real-world conditions into design and constructability conversations. The ability to easily capture site information also improves the rate at which the design can be iterated on.
During the construction phase, drones have many current and potential uses. They help to track and communicate progress, track and manage materials and assets, reduce theft, improve owner visibility, increase safety, and provide valuable information for improving design changes. They also create a valuable documentation trail in case of problems.
Handover and Maintenance
Drone imagery and video of the final product can create customer delight during handover. This data also has a practical value in property management and maintenance, providing owners and managers with visual data regarding the as-built condition of the building. Additionally, drones equipped with thermal imaging capability can detect heat leaks in a building envelope or along a long run of underground utility piping.
In-House Versus Outsourcing Your Drone Operation
While the immediate cost of owning a drone has decreased substantially, the cost does not end with the purchase. It’s important to also consider the costs of accessories, use, and maintenance. There is additional equipment to be purchased, planning and setup considerations, maintenance, liability, and regulations to consider. Additionally, the cost of operator headcount must be considered.
Some companies find that outsourcing their drone operation provides a better outcome. When making the decision, the three key considerations should be cost, liability, and resource capacity. Whichever you decide, it’s important to ensure that your team owns the process.
In-House Drone Program
Outsourced Drone Program
Choosing a Drone for Construction
If you’ve decided to proceed with purchasing your own drone and run the program in-house, the first thing you’ll want to think about is the type of drone and features that makes sense for your application.. Here are some of the options that will impact the drone’s usefulness:
- Fixed wing versus verticle-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) verse tethered VTOL
- Size and payload
- Battery life and flight time
- Range and maneuverability
Fixed Wing versus VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) versus Tethered VTOL
These options have to do with how the drone itself gets and stays in the air. If it has fixed wings, it will operate much like an airplane, whereas a VTOL will operate more like a helicopter. In most cases, the power is provided by a battery, and flight time is limited by battery life. A tethered VTOL remains connected to a grounded power source via a “tether,” and thus provides unlimited flight time. Fixed wings are more expensive but provide faster and farther flight. However, they cannot hover, which can limit their inspection capabilities. VTOLs are better for detailed inspections, due to their ability to hover in place, but they will have a shorter range overall.
Size and Payload
Payload refers to what the drone can carry. Payload is critically important because it will determine the weight and size of equipment you can attach to your drone, which is why it’s a good idea to decide on your equipment before you purchase your drone.
Battery Life and Flight Time
Obviously, this feature will impact how you can use your drone on the job site. Longer battery life and flight time gives you greater flexibility, but will generally cost more on the front end. Balance your needs against your investment.
Range & Maneuverability
Range refers to the distance over which a drone can operate as measured from its operator. Maneuverability refers to its ability to move quickly in any direction. Both are impacted by the type of drone (fixed wing versus VTOL), as well as other factors. Maneuverability is important on small sites with hard to reach areas, while range is important for exploring large areas such as on an infrastructure project.
Types of Drone Equipment (Sensors)
While the drones get all the glory, it’s the equipment that makes them more than just a hobbyist’s entertainment. And there are so many choices!
- Photos and video sensors (cameras)
- Geo-location sensors (GPS, for example)
- Thermal sensors for detecting heat
It pays to research your equipment option before purchasing your drone, to ensure the drone you choose is compatible with the equipment you need.
Regulations for commercial drone regulation are evolving quickly. In the US, the relevant authority is the Federal Aviation Adminstration (FAA) and in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). You can review the latest FAA rules here, and the CAA rules here. Other countries may have their own regulations.
Ready, Set, Go
If you’re seriously considering adding drone technology to your projects, there is a lot to learn. Our ConTech Academy drone course will give you everything you need.