The drone market has seen an incredible explosion in the past several years. Widely available models, costing well below $2,000, have contributed to an increase in sales, from $44 million in 2013 to an estimated $1.3 billion this past year.
On the consumer side, it’s a hardware-driven boom: inexpensive drones that fit into a backpack and fly with gamelike control sticks. But for businesses—especially construction companies—looking to use drones, the democratization has been driven by software and data advances.
A handful of companies specialize in drone app- and cloud-based services that collect data and imagery for construction-site use. It works like this: An app on a tablet allows automated flight paths to scan a given area. This scan is then uploaded to a cloud-based photogrammetry engine that takes the raw imagery and processes it into map and model forms, which are shared across a web-based platform.
Once uploaded, this data comes back as TIFFs and other photography formats, topographic maps, point clouds, and 3D mesh files. The result is a near-real-time digital twin of what’s happening on a construction site—one that can be updated daily, offer visual fidelity within an inch, and integrate with Autodesk BIM 360 and GIS. This data allows comparisons of built structures to designers’ models to plan work and spot mistakes before they become chronically expensive to fix.
According to drone-data firm DroneDeploy, drone use on construction sites has increased by more than 200 percent in the past year. Gil Mildworth, vice president of business development at construction data company SiteAware, says: “There is no more question today whether using drones in construction is something that brings value. It’s all about the data it captures and how to extract the right insights from it as part of an integrated construction workflow.”
Bill Bennington, national quality manager at PCL Construction, helped create the company’s in-house drone program two years ago and now has nearly 30 certified pilots flying in the United States and Canada. But at first, the program’s effectiveness was unsure. “I saw project teams trying to find problems they could solve with a drone to justify the initial investment,” Bennington says. “Now, we no longer have big ROI conversations, because the advantages have been realized by project teams who rely heavily on drone data for day-to-day communications and project-coordination meetings.”
On any construction project, the three primary drivers of efficiency are time, quality, and cost—and drones can help with each. Fundamentally, a drone can move across a site faster than a person, streaking through the sky without having to weave through trenches and parked trucks or slowly ascend scaffolding.
Bennington says that for augmented-reality and virtual-reality visualizations of drone imagery, PCL manages 3D mesh and 3D point-cloud images of buildings under construction with 3DR’s web-based drone platform, Site Scan. When the team is ready to overlay the as-built environment on the design model, they download the mesh/point cloud files and open them in Autodesk products such as Revit or ReCap. “In the past, the 3D meshes and point clouds were only available to those who were trained to run sophisticated, expensive software,” he says. “Now, the 3D meshes and point clouds are accessible to anyone on the project.”
Hugh McFall, product marketing manager at 3DR, offers more examples of projects being streamlined with the help of drones: 3DR worked with the Arizona Department of Transportation to use its Site Scan app to survey a site for a bridge-replacement project, reducing surveying time from a full day or longer to just 30 minutes. In Qatar, Arcadis used Site Scan to perform earthwork stockpile measurements for a highway, completing work 10 times faster than usual. Notable 3DR customer projects include contractor Trubeck’s use of drones to capture aerial imagery for as-built models and progress reporting as it builds Uber’s new San Francisco headquarters.
The cloud-based photogrammetry engines that translate drone data into usable formats also automate what had been a more manual process. For example, DroneDeploy’s real-time photogrammetry engine doesn’t require uploading to the cloud: Its Live Map feature stitches together 2D maps as the drone flies by processing imagery without an Internet connection, providing instant insights.
Once this imagery is shared across a web-based platform, it’s available to entire project teams, with tiered permissions and access restrictions. “Drone data enables people who aren’t on the jobsite to contribute,” says Mike Winn, DroneDeploy’s CEO.
Different camera types add new functionality. Thermal cameras, for example, are particularly useful for solar-panel inspection to detect heat leaks or waterproofing issues on façades and to monitor curing concrete.
Even before pulleys start creaking and arc welders rain down sparks, drone data can make construction sites safer. Bennington says that drone data and imagery are critical in assembling site logistics plans and orienting new contractors to safety protocols. Instead of pointing at a crude map of the site, he can walk builders through a 3D representation (or twin) of the project.
PCL uses drones for other safety measures such as measuring existing site contours and grades to actively managing runoff and maintaining proper clearances from existing utilities. But the most obvious safety benefit is that builders don’t have to scale unfinished buildings for quality-assurance inspections. “Falling is the most common cause of accidents in construction,” McFall says. “Flying a drone, instead of putting someone in harm’s way, is an easy and cost-effective way to keep your field team safe.”
An intuitive next step for drones is to physically interact with structures; already, drones are being used to deice wind turbines. But data and workflow interoperability are the most pressing concerns for builders and drone-data companies.
“Flying a drone is an easy and cost-effective way to keep your field team safe.”
—Hugh McFall, 3DR product marketing manager
McFall says that adding a few more levels of automation is the best way to derive more value from drones. Hence, the “drone in a box” concept: At a designated time, the box opens, and the drone goes about its automated flight path, transmitting data back to a central processing facility before settling back down to Earth to recharge using solar panels, all without direct human intervention. “This is the level of automation that we’re working toward,” he says. (Current regulations make this largely impossible in the United States, as all drones must fly within the line of sight of an operator.)
Mildworth also wants to see how machine learning can be applied to drone monitoring. “I think the next step would be to take all of that in an even more automated way, where the analysis would be based on AI,” he says. Here, machine-learning protocols generate a set of recommendations and priorities for resolving issues on a construction site, compiling lessons from past experiences and applying them to future jobs. A drone could warn staff if deadlines are in danger of slipping and if site measurements don’t match specifications or recognize if builders are not wearing hard hats.
“We’re quickly moving toward a world where a drone can take off, and you would never have to look at the data,” Winn says. “[You’d] just get reports on actions that need to be taken.”
It’s a radical shift for the drone-data industry. Here, the final product wouldn’t be imagery or a map (though that information would still be part of the package). Instead, it’s a series of questions brought to the attention of human operators. “Data is useful,” Winn says. “But it would be more useful if the data could be processed and be understood by the computer itself.”