Could Drones Take the Construction Industry to New Heights?

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The construction industry is sometimes criticized for being slow to adopt new technology, but two big advances look to put an end to that debate once and for all.

The first is the very obvious impact of the smartphone, which means construction workers can now carry more tools with them than ever before and for many, this includes the TSheets app, which gives accurate timesheets, easy job scheduling, and improved site safety with GPS tracking.

The second is the unstoppable rise of the drone, or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) as they’re also known. According to a 2015 report by KPCB, annual drone sales are now worth $4.3 million globally, with 35% of the market captured by the U.S. alone. Overall, the industry is estimated to be worth some $1.7 billion.

A lot of these drones have gone to filmmakers seeking fresh perspectives on the world, and it’s for a similar reason that construction managers and architects are looking to exploit drones’ ability to go where humans cannot.

“We’ve been getting a lot of interest in filming large construction sites to document progress,” explains Brett Velicovich from Expert Drones in a recent interview with TSheets (read the full story here).

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“Something larger construction firms in particular want is for us to fly a drone through a site once a month and film it, because with a drone, you can always fly the same route. You just program it and the next time you go to the site, you hit a button and it flies the exact same route. It takes all the same shots to show the progress.”

Velicovich believes the construction and real estate industries are the ones that stand to benefit most from the use of drones.

“Because it’s cheap, the video is very high quality, and it’s something you used to have to pay thousands of dollars for a helicopter to do,” he explains.

“Now, for a few hundred, you can get even better quality.”

Richard Evans from Houston-based contractor SpawGlass agrees. Speaking to Equipment World, he says, “We flew [a drone] at one job site that was probably about a $60 million job for a high-profile client. We flew around and got a lot of footage of it, and it was very impressive. We realized that we couldn’t have done that with the aerial photography service which we have been using for years. This wasn’t just still snapshots. It showed the property off in a way that made us realize that what we had, in many ways, was a great marketing tool.”

The possibilities don’t end there.

As well as capturing progress photography, drones can be used on the job site for surveys, inspections, safety monitoring, and even visual reports which highlight where a project is running behind.

Japanese manufacturer Komatsu is currently working with Skycatch to create a system that can produce 3D models from drone footage to create interactive maps of the job site.

“The map comes to life on our dashboard,” says Skycatch CEO Christian Sanz in an interview with Gizmag. “Clients can do things like impose overlays of plans onto what’s actually been built, calculate volumetric measurements, and make annotations for themselves or to share with co-workers.

“Drone technology is providing a competitive edge to the companies who’ve successfully adopted it,” he adds.

But what are the rules for using drones, and could these clip the wings of this new technology before it’s even had a chance to take off?

Since December 21, 2015, all drones weighing more than .55 pounds must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The cost is minimal, just $5, and you get an official ID number to attach to your drone before you fly it.

To ensure everyone knows what they can and can’t do with a drone, the FAA recently launched a campaign called Know Before You Fly, and despite some initial protests against the new regulations (some of which are still at the proposal stage), a lot of them are common sense which any good pilot should be following anyway. The FAA authorizes the commercial use of drones on a case-by-case basis, and once you’ve got permission, the rules include:

  • Fly below 400 feet.
  • Keep your drone in sight at all times.
  • Avoid other aircraft and obstacles.
  • Keep your drone at least 25 feet away from other people and vulnerable property.
  • Don’t fly over people, moving vehicles, or sensitive infrastructure such as power lines and correctional facilities.
  • If you plan to fly within five miles of an airport you must contact the airport first.
  • Don’t fly in adverse weather conditions or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Don’t conduct surveillance photography without people’s permission.

Rich Hanson is the director of government and regulatory affairs at the Academy of Model Aeronautics and speaking to Tucson News this year, he stressed the need for education, saying, “It’s important to get (retailers) involved from the standpoint of at least making information available.

“We even have some retailers actually interested in educating their sales staff so that they can appropriately talk to consumers or potential customers about the safety aspects of it. As a minimum, we at least want them to have the safety literature available because they’re the ones that really, at this point, have the first contact with the people that first start flying these devices.”

The early signs from retailers such as Expert Drones is that this is already happening.

“Training is key,” agrees Brett Velicovich. “We do training all the time for people who want to learn how to fly their drone and understand the fundamentals.

“We teach people how to fly drones and how to use all the functions.”

But when it comes to flying drones on the construction site, the best advice is not to try to do it yourself, but get an expert to do it for you.

“We’ve been asked to go out and film wind turbines in the middle of New Mexico and inspect the blades on them for damage,” explains Velicovich.

“This would typically require someone to climb 400 feet in the air and do very dangerous work, but now we can send up a high-end drone to the top of that wind turbine in a matter of seconds.”

It’s another disruptive technology, and just as it’s doing with time tracking, the industry is embracing it with open arms.

Read the full story about Expert Drones here.

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