Use of Drones in the Construction Industry
Drones are an exciting new technology, whose use continues to expand into new industries, and the construction industry is no exception. Typically, in today’s term, “drone” is used to refer to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and that is what we’ll focus on in this article. For reference, the Federal Aviation Administration refers to these craft as unmanned aircraft system, or, “UAS.” To provide a sense of how widespread this technology has become, the FAA reported that over the course of 2016, people in the U.S. registered more than 670,000 drones and some 37,000 remote pilot certificates were issued by the end of August of that year.
This explosive growth is already changing the way the construction industry operates and will only continue to influence how work is accomplished. According to a report by Goldman Sachs, the largest commercial use of drones in the immediate future will come from construction, primarily through surveying and mapping functions. To put some numbers with that, Goldman Sachs estimated that approximately $100 billion would be spent on drones in the commercial market over the next five years, and of that $100 billion, somewhere around $11.2 billion will come from the construction industry.
Those spend values likely because the benefits of drone use extend to projects of all sizes and add value to some processes across the industry. For example, surveying and site exploration before the start of construction will continue to replace traditional methods and can impact bidding and project design. Once construction is underway, drones can benefit the tracking of progress, inspection of work, and site security, and later in the process, they can improve facilities management and maintenance. They can also add value to support activities and the business-side of the industry, like improving communication and client relations. Let’s explore a few of these areas:
As we already noted, traditional surveying and site exploration activities are quickly being replaced by drones. The time and labor involved are greatly reduced while producing equally accurate data. In many cases, this real-world data is even higher quality than one would receive from traditional methods, allowing for earlier judgment of project feasibility and more informed project bidding and design. Conceptual models and presentation materials can now reach a previously unimaginable level of detail and realism.
UAV benefits extend into construction activities as well but still have the potential for plenty of growth. Drones can be used for a variety of tasks, from tracking progress to improving site security. The unique perspective of a drone’s camera allows for an all-encompassing view of your job site and the work occurring. This offers quick and simple access to time-lapse views of progress which can be shared with clients, as well as estimates of the actual volume of materials used or moved for quantitative estimates of progress. Another facet is asset protection, where drones can even help keep your site more secure by monitoring for trespassing, theft, or vandalism.
In the future, we may see drones delivering materials to a job site from a manufacturer, or even moving materials on the job site, saving time and preventing potential injury to human laborers. Imagine, you no longer have to deal with truck traffic from an off-site lay-down yard, or a drone lifting materials from the ground to the top of a 40-story high-rise project!
Many of the same benefits for construction activities add value to post-construction efforts as well. Facilities management can leverage UAVs for security, inspection, maintenance, and more. For example, difficult-to-access equipment can be more easily inspected by drones to identify problems and determine whether maintenance is required. This saves time, improves safety, and the efficiencies gained can save money in the short and long term. One day, the maintenance itself may even be performed by drones!
Communication and Management
Similar to what we’ve already discussed, some support activities are enhanced through the use of drones. The quality of marketing materials and communication of progress can be boosted significantly by the unique site views offered by a drone. Coworkers and customers alike will have an unmatched visual understanding of the site and the progress being made. Before and after photos, or even videos will impress on a whole new level! With adequate accuracy, a project manager could even use these visual observations of materials to track Earned Value and the percentage of completion of the project.
There are numerous safety and legal implications that one should be aware of, as well as the differences between the commercial and personal use of drones. The FAA has begun to more heavily regulate the use of drones in the United States, and regulations will even vary by city, state, and intended use. With this in mind, be sure you fully understand the specific rules and regulations for your area before incorporating drones into your business practices.
In closing, despite increasing adoption and regulation, there is still tremendous growth in the use of drones in construction. Drones can add significant value throughout a project lifecycle, and as drone technology advances, the capabilities offered to the construction world will only continue to increase. The use of drones is not a simple fad, and this valuable new technology is here to stay!