The use of drones in construction is an industry innovation which is really taking off. There are many site tasks which a drone can facilitate with greater speed and accuracy yet much less expense than traditional methods. So, how exactly can drones be used in construction, and what’s the future trajectory for using them in the industry?
What’s a drone?
A drone is a recognisable aircraft, usually of compact design but variable in size – from the size of a closed fist to larger versions more like a mini-aircraft.
The drone is controlled remotely and collects data, mainly images such as video footage and photographs. However, drones can also collect other data and footage used to directly feed into other software, such as mapping to create comprehensive datasets.
As an aircraft, a drone is designated as ‘unmanned’ because it’s controlled remotely by the person on the ground. For this reason, you’ll often see drones denoted as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).
Why are drones moving into construction?
A recent in-depth Technology Driving Innovation report from Goldman Sachs estimates the US commercial sectors likely to see an increase in the use of drones are agriculture and construction. In both of these sectors, the primary function of drones is the surveying and mapping of sites.
And of course, the UK isn’t far behind, with the PwC’s membership network report Skies Without Limits revealing that drone technology is expected to uplift the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the UK’s construction and manufacturing industries by £8.6bn to 2030, through new innovation, improved productivity and cost-effectiveness.
How is drone innovation influencing the construction industry?
It’s the wealth of functionality and accessibility offered by drones which are really building innovation and influence in the construction industry. In fact, using drones for surveying and mapping is only the start when it comes to the range of services a drone can provide in the construction industry:
- Initial site survey and measurement
Accessibility and accuracy are helping drones to establish their role in surveying and the reproduction of accurate measuring. This has particular applications for initial surveys, when access to all parts of the site may not be possible. Footage from initial surveys also helps to inform impact assessments and provide historical records.
- Construction mapping and 3D modelling
Alongside surveys, innovation in drone software systems allow accurate contour maps and 3D models to be produced, based on footage and data gathered:
- The process of high-resolution aerial imagery (Orthomosaics) 3D modelling comes in various formats but essentially enables images of the whole project area to be captured and merged into a comprehensive model of the area.
- 2D images can also be generated based on the mapping technology.
- Whilst 3D imagery offers full model benefits, 2D images allow accurate measurements and adjustment.
- Progress monitoring
Many of the latest drone systems incorporate real-time monitoring, for enhanced security and in-the-moment evaluation, response and planning. Drones make the production of weekly progress maps far quicker, easier and less costly than traditional ways. They also facilitate greater and easier information exchanges between construction companies and their clients, boosting overall efficiency and communication.
- Security and maintenance of construction sites
Drone surveys can also support the logistics and asset management of construction sites and enhance overall security. Breaches in security can be quickly attended via drone and the situation ascertained. For example, an issue with fencing after extreme weather could be quickly identified so that temporary fencing can be installed, reducing the risk of theft and trespass.
The use of additional camera features such as thermal imagery means that problems such as out-of-hours security or identifying overheating or fire can be raised from a safe distance immediately. Data can also provide audit trails in the event of on-site maintenance and security problems.
- Risk and safety management
The unmanned aspect of UAVs holds particular relevance for construction sites. Any areas considered too risky for sending in personnel, such as dangerous structures, areas where hazardous materials are leaking or where there’s risk of fire from flammable materials, mean using a drone presents a safer option as the drone operator can remain at a safe distance.
What’s more, in 2016-2017, falls on site were the second highest cause of fatalities in the UK construction industry (HSE), so keeping workers on the ground and sending the drones up instead can contribute to overall worker safety and risk management.
- Reaching inaccessible or unsafe areas, for survey and safety monitoring purposes
As mentioned, where areas are completely inaccessible, drones can be used to access the area. Where there’s uncertainty about safety issues, drone technology can be used to save time as well as minimise risk; for example, drones can analyse roof structures from above, then from the underside through accessing eaves and loft areas – much safer than sending surveyors or workers up onto areas of negligible safety.
- Transportation of goods
Drones also have a role to play in logistics and can facilitate and improve logistic practices by providing aerial deliveries of equipment, materials and notices. Being small and relatively easy to manoeuvre (by fully trained persons), it can be quicker and also safer to deploy a drone for a drop of equipment than to use site vehicles, especially as being struck by a moving vehicle was the primary cause of fatalities on construction sites in 2016-2017 (HSE).
What’s the cost of drones in the industry?
High profile companies and consultancies in construction are watching closely to see the impact of drones on costs in construction.
In one example, land-surveillance methods are being monitored and appear to be being fast outmoded by the drone technology for survey and inspection purposes – because they are proving to be cost-effective and offer minimal risk to workers and surveyors. Since 2017, construction giants Balfour Beatty have been conducting a drone technology trial for the inspection of bridges in West Sussex. In the trial so far, savings of around £8,000 compared to traditional inspections have been noted.
But it’s also the cost of time which is another benefit of the use of drones, because in any industry – including construction – time is money. The Goldman Sachs report comments “drones can usually shorten a long process by producing 3D renderings of a property” and “UAVs may become a key tool for surveyors by allowing improved measurement accuracy and faster work”, clearly demonstrating that the time-saving advantages of using drones bring considerable benefits to businesses.
And of course, accuracy is a key point when it comes to the cost of time. Getting information and measurements right the first time not only improves efficiency (cost of time) but also saves the time and financial costs of dealing with mistakes.
What’s the future trajectory for the use of drones in construction?
As the trials and growing use of drones become more widespread and, as the studies predict, there are plenty of areas of practice where drones offer the potential to impact in the future. This include, but of course aren’t limited to:
- Growing use of digital data – the use of this growing technology will help to transform not only working methods but also business and reporting models within the industry. With the arrival of drones, a complete digital refurbishment of the construction industry is also on the horizon.
- Innovation in integration – the development of integrated systems also holds exciting prospects for the construction industry. Instead of contrasting and comparing different sets of data to gain an overall picture, the innovation of systems which integrate different sets of data, such as laser scanned measurements from inside a building alongside drone data from external areas, means a comprehensive overview can be gained of all the data.
- Regulation of use – where innovation in the use of drones has developed, so to have parameters and concerns about use. Implications for unsafe, unlicensed use have been a hot topic in the media and in parliament, leading to calls for regulation and codes of practice in the use of drones. Currently, the Drone (Regulation) Bill 2017-2019 is itself under construction via the parliamentary process. The Bill specifically:
- Differentiates between domestic drones and commercial drones – if the owner of the drone is being paid, then a licence is required.
- Licensing is proposed by a subsidiary of the Civil Aviation Authority. The licence includes regulations for use, to help ensure the safety of commercial craft.
- As such, licensing could have implications for where and how drones are used in construction, for example, if there is a ban on using a drone within X metres of people and below a given height restriction, this could have implications on when and how drones are used on construction sites.
- Registration process – the Bill also requires drone users to register their drones for use:
- All drones over 250g (including domestic use) – basic registration.
- Drones over 5kg – owners have to register and also take a drone safety awareness test, to ensure awareness of and compliance with UK security, safety and privacy regulations.
- Innovation in dangerous industries – the safety aspects and risk minimization benefits of drone technology continues to grow and develop in line with the requirements of many emergency services such as fire, search and rescue, dangerous structure teams now regularly using drones rather than personnel when it comes to surveying for safety and rescue.
How can construction managers make the best use of drones when planning future development?
With the growth and increasing potential of uses for drones in the construction industry, now’s the time for construction managers to consider the implications for drone use in their own future planning. Key considerations for construction companies, construction managers and stakeholders include:
- Following the development of the Drone Regulation Bill.
- Becoming acquainted with the developing technology and identifying how this may have specific implications for the type of construction the company’s involved in.
- Reviewing current data gathering processes, tools and how data is used, to see where and how drone data could facilitate a saving of time or money and/or improve productivity, safety and quality of information gathered and used.
Once consideration has taken place, it’s then down to construction companies to decide whether to invest in hardware and training of registered on-site staff for drone use, or whether to use commercial drone services to make the most of drone technology for their own construction businesses.