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Site Intelligence Takes Flight

  • Published Mon Jul 24, 2017

Practical drone applications in the construction industry.

Editor’s Note: This informational article was developed in conjunction with CASE technology partner Leica Geosystems. For more information on Leica Geosystems drone solutions for the construction industry, visit leica-geosystems.com.

One of the hottest topics right now in the construction industry – or at least the one that sparks the most imagination – is the use of drones on jobsites. While the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may inspire some big thinking for future use, the practical uses of the technology today are already having an impact on the construction industry. Here are three ways that drones are impacting jobsites today, along with a word on certification/legality.

  1. Pre-construction inspection/estimating

    Drones give large earthmoving contractors a perspective that they never had before without paying for aerial photography from a plane or helicopter. Drones give contractors a photographic perspective of large commercial and industrial sites, which can sit on hundreds of acres, to give them a better understanding of the geographic challenges/realities of the site. It also allows for examination of adjoining properties to help get a better understanding of drainage and how water will flow from site-to-site. Pipeline and utility companies can use drones to inspect right of ways to make any number of inferences on upcoming/maintenance construction projects.

    Drones can also be used to take land measurements (see point 2 below) that assist in the bidding/estimating process. As an example: a large industrial plant is going to be built on a 100-acre site. In the middle of that 100-acre site is a sizeable hill. The rough size of that hill can be determined quickly via a drone to help determine the rough quantity of material that will need to be extracted from the site.

  2. Taking measurements and monitoring progress

    Drones are being used in a number of ways to help determine the quantities of materials on site – from stockpiles in aggregates operations to rough cuts in mass excavation applications. The current precision of these measurement techniques is not as high as more traditional earthbound methods, but it is considerably faster and more efficient (one airborne view that can be repeated effortlessly throughout the day/week/month vs. numerous set-ups on the ground). This is accomplished through the science of photogrammetry. Put simply: points with real-world positions are included in each photograph, and then the person processing the photo can apply a scale via those points to determine the size of select objects. Some large-scale earthmoving operations will fly a drone multiple times throughout the course of a day or week to gauge progress and measure quantities. This is a good measurement of progress, and is also useful in helping determine if there is an excess of material on site that will have to be removed, or if additional material will have to be trucked in.

    Current Lidar technology, which provides even more precise measurements, is generally too large to affix to drones used in construction applications – but keep an eye out as that technology advances and becomes more compact and capable of being mounted to drones. A ground-based lidar system is limited to surveying only the pieces of the site it can see, and requires movement and setup around the site to get a comprehensive picture. A drone-mounted lidar system provides that comprehensive view in a single flight. Similarly, airplane-based thermal imaging technologies – which could help in determining soil types, etc., could work its way down to construction drones.

  3. Building/Infrastructure Inspection

    Nothing replaces the accuracy of inspecting something while standing right in front of it – but in times of urgency, or in perilous locations where inspections potentially put someone at risk, a drone can quickly move into position to capture imagery that shows the condition/integrity of a structure. Bridges, buildings, pipelines, etc. – all of these remote inspection points can now be reached almost effortlessly with a drone.

  4. Certification/Legality

    Anyone can walk down to their closest big-box electronics retailer and buy a drone today. They’re also pretty simple to operate – some can even be powered through a cell phone or tablet. While access and ability make drones attractive to the casual user, it’s important for the business user to understand and follow the regulations put forth by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Operators must pass an FAA-proctored airman aeronautical knowledge exam (commonly referred to as the FAA Part 107 test) and then apply for a remote pilot airman certificate from the FAA. Once obtained, operators are free to use their drones for commercial use within the scope of FAA Part 107, which dictates safe operational practices based on airspace, location and a good deal of common sense. Having the certification also protects each company from possible fines and liabilities, etc. if caught using one without it. The test requires a bit of studying, but is inexpensive to take and worth the investment in the business.

Where telematics and machine control have dominated the technology discussion for the last few years, drone-mounted evolutions in these technologies appear ready to dominate headlines for the next few years. Get prepped and certified now to take full advantage of the technology.

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