Drone technology takes off in construction and surveying

We’ve become accustomed to reading articles on the usage of UAVs in various industries, with claims that the adoption rate of this new technology will be high in future. Indeed, a number of high profile research and consultancy firms like of Accenture, Goldman Sachs, PWC and Cap Gemini are predicting massive growth in the use of UAVs across many industries.

The various research and consultancy firm’s reference different figures about the value of this new industry, but whether you take one figure or another, what’s clear is that the industry is going to be enormous. Those companies that integrate this new technology into their business models will reap substantial benefits. These include improved data quality, cost savings, increased operational efficiencies and improvements in health and safety, to name but a few.

Here are three key observations about UAV technology:

1. UAVs are going to be a major disruptor in the coming years. Consequently, early and effective implementation of the technology is likely to give companies a significant edge in a very competitive market.

2. According to PWC, the construction industry has the best prospects for leveraging UAV technology.

3. Balfour Beatty is predicting that UAVs will also play a key part in the digital construction world.

These three key observations were reflected in a recent survey by my own company, ProDroneWorx. A third of the respondents, which included construction firms, surveyors, architects and engineers, were already using UAV technology and, of those that did not, almost 70% of them planned to do so in the near future.

Of the third of respondents that were already using UAV technology, the majority (60%) had been using it for less than a year. But an important sub-group of this set (11%) had been using the technology for three to five years – making them very early adaptors indeed.

Surveying the landscape

UAVs can be used to automate simple tasks and reduce labour costs significantly, while also providing survey grade accuracy through the use of GCPs or UAVs with RTK/PPK built in.

UAVs are already used in engineering projects for 3D modelling, progress monitoring and for stockpile or aggregate volume measurements. They can also be used on operations that normally require the shutdown of machinery, thus avoiding costly downtime. For example, they are used for maintenance operations in the utilities industry to keep refineries and rigs operational during inspections. Some firms are also using autonomous UAVs on rigs, so a pilot isn’t even required to operate the UAV. However, it’s worth noting that these type of systems are very sophisticated and cost millions.

Elsewhere, UAVs have a wide variety of uses within engineering from topographical surveys, orthomosaics, volume measurement and asset inspection to site monitoring. Indeed, at nearly every stage of the engineering process UAVs can be of huge benefit, from the planning stage to final construction.

UAVs are also likely to revolutionise engineering through the use of 3D modelling, which will reduce the amount of time it takes to design, analyse and maintain a structure, or implement any changes. 3D models are capable of spanning the infrastructure’s entire lifecycle, from the initial planning stages through to the operation and maintenance. As a result, engineers can enjoy a clearer understanding of a project’s performance by maintaining more consistent data and responding faster to change.

UAVs can assist engineers in the following ways:

  • Surveying: topographic surveys are an essential part of any engineering project. Using UAVs to survey land or a site saves a substantial amount of time, moving a project one step closer to meeting its scheduled deadline. Digital surface models (DSM) and contour maps can also be created at intervals defined by the engineer.

  • Orthomosaics: high resolution aerial imagery can be captured on the whole project area and all of the images can be merged to form a seamless mosaic. This data can be used by engineers to understand the development area in great detail while the 2D image is orthorectified so measurements can be taken from it.

  • Volume Measurement: UAVs can be used to measure stockpiles on site or the extraction volumes for earthworks. This is very helpful because it can be challenging, costly and time consuming to quantify the exact amount of resources present in a specific area using traditional methods.

  • Progress Monitoring: UAVs are the best way for engineers to monitor work progress on a project. They provide engineers with data to better track a project’s progress, manage resources, reduce downtime, and keep projects on schedule and within budget. They also allow onsite teams to verify the ‘as built’ project status against design models using 2D and 3D data.

  • 3D Modelling: 3D point clouds or textured models are a great way for engineers to visualise an area of interest, which is very different to viewing it using standard images. These models provide a detailed level of depth and insight into the structure being assessed. 3D models can be imported into BIM or CAD packages so that comparisons can be made with the design plans.

  • Asset Inspection: whether it’s inspecting a road, building, industrial unit or bridge, UAVs provide engineers with a safe, quick and cost-effective way of inspecting an asset. UAVs can provide access to areas that are deemed too difficult or risky to send engineers into. An added benefit is that all inspection results can be saved for future reference, while also allowing for comparisons over time.

Integrating the Data

A key benefit of using UAV technology, and the specialised photogrammetry software used to create the 2D/3D maps or models, is that the data can be imported into Engineering BIM or CAD packages in various file formats such as dwg, dxf, xyz, las, laz, obj and, kmz, for example. This makes integration of the digital 2D/3D data into workflow processes straight forward.

UAV adoption is clearly set to grow in future. And I have no doubt in my mind that we have much more to see in terms of the development of new products and technological innovations.

These technological improvements will make UAVs fly faster for longer, while also improving safety. The use of hydrogen fuel cells, for example, could keep them flying for hours. The real benefits will come from improvements to the UAV itself, with sensors and the use of predicative data analytics to analyse real time information through machine learning and algorithms.


Drones in Construction, Engineering and Surveying

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