Drones are often in the news these days – sometimes for the wrong reasons. Last July, for example, Gatwick Airport had to close its runway for several hours due to an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone to you and me, flying too close to the airport. Thankfully, such incidents are likely to become less frequent in future as the authorities tighten up the regulations governing recreational use of drones. Indeed, the government has announced far-reaching changes to drone legislation through the ‘Drone Bill’, including the mandatory registration for those who own a drone weighing more than 250 grams (8oz). Under the new rules, drone owners will be required to pass a safety awareness course in order to prove that they understand UK safety, security and privacy regulations.
In the commercial sector, however, drone usage has always been tightly controlled. Commercial operations require a Pfco (Permission for Commercial Operation) licence from the CAA, allowing users to fly to a maximum of 400 feet, but no closer than 50 meters to buildings and people not under the control of the pilot for drones weighing less than 7kg. But it’s the commercial potential of using drones, rather than their use or abuse of UK airspace, that’s capturing the attention of the construction industry.
A $100 billion opportunity
In the last two years, many financial services firms such as Goldman Sachs, PWC and Cap Gemini have released reports on drone technology, charting its move away from its military origins into the commercial sector. In 2016, Goldman Sachs, for example, forecast a $100 billion market opportunity over the next five years for drones, in large part driven by the commercial sector. In the UK alone, it estimates that US $3.5 billion will be spent on drone technology between 2017 and 2021. And, in terms of potential users, the construction industry appears right at the top of Goldman’s list.
Goldman Sach’s forecasts were confirmed 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 drone 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 drone 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.
Learning to fly
So why should companies consider using drone technology and how can they use it in practice? First, drone technology is more cost effective and efficient than traditional surveying methods. A large site or land, for example, might take a qualified surveyor a few days to complete, but a drone and less than 10 ground control points (GCPs) can accomplish the same task in less than a day.
Secondly, drones have a myriad of uses on construction and infrastructure projects. Senior managers, project managers, surveyors, architects and engineers are all discovering that the 2D and 3D data produced using drone technology is an indispensable tool during all phases of construction, from design to completion. And drones are the best way for companies to monitor work progress on a project. They can assess a number of different areas, including:
Progress monitoring allows onsite teams to verify the ‘as built’ project status against design models using 2D and 3D data. The output provides accurate elevation data, contour lines, and 3D modelling, plus the ability to export the data to BIM and CAD software.
Thirdly, drones are also very useful when it comes to condition and asset inspection. Whether it’s inspecting an asset such as a building, an industrial unit, a warehouse, a bridge, a solar farm, land or a road, drones provide a safe, quick and cost-effective way of inspecting an asset. For assets to operate efficiently they need to be well maintained so that the risk of any fault is either eliminated or minimised to prevent costly damage from occurring. This might include identifying weak structures, finding corrosion, structural damage or damage to a roof and its supporting structure.
Fourthly, drones also have important technical attributes. When the 2D/3D data is combined with GCPs, survey grade accuracy of less than 2cm can be achieved, which is impressive and has a real tangible benefit.
Using drones to survey land or a site saves a substantial amount of time and money for topographic or boundary surveys. Surveys of large areas of land can be done per day using sophisticated photogrammetry software and total station/GPS equipment.
3D models (point cloud, textured model) over large areas or objects can also be easily created using drone technology or can be combined with ground based laser scanning and conventional total station surveying to produce the complete 3D model.
Volumetric, linear and area measurements can also be calculated from the 2D/3D data.
Digital Surface Models (DSM) can also be easily produced, as they measure the height values of the first surface on the ground. This includes terrain features, buildings, vegetation and any other objects. DSM's provide a topographic model of an area, site or land.
Furthermore, these 2D/3D maps or models can be imported into BIM or CAD packages in various file types like dwg, dxf, xyz, las, laz, obj, kmz etc.
Finally, aerial drone images are a great way to capture the true magnificence of an area, object or building in a way that can’t be achieved through on the ground photography. It’s a completely new visual perspective that’s now affordable compared to hiring a helicopter or plane to do the same job. And it looks great in a brochure.
In-house or third party?
So, what are the options for those companies considering using drone technology? They really have two options: outsource the work to a specialised 3rd party company like ProDroneWorx; or do it in-house. The majority of firms will use a 3rd party company and this is backed up with data from the survey. Many businesses make use of a third party, hiring a drone company that arrives onsite with all the necessary equipment, licenses and so on required to carry out the job. Doing it in-house is the alternative option. To do this companies need to purchase all the hardware and software themselves, carry out the data processing, have the correct insurance in place, train staff to fly a drone and write an operations manual to get their CAA Pfco license.
In my experience, however, the majority of companies go down the third-party route, because it’s quick, manageable and much more cost effective for the vast majority of companies.
Drone adoption is clearly set to grow in the 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. In an increasingly competitive landscape, I believe that drone technology can give firms a competitive advantage by saving time and money, increasing operational efficiency and reducing risk.