The high-flying drone has not escaped the notice of the construction industry, notorious for its reluctance to embrace new and potentially more productive technologies. In fact, construction is poised to emerge as the world’s leading user of commercial drones in the next five years, according to projections by global investment banker Goldman Sachs.
Among the reasons: Drones are more productive for tasks involving site surveys and provide data to generate 3-D structural models, topographical maps, and volumetric measurements, making the technology too potentially profitable to pass up. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs predicted construction will account for nearly $11.2 billion of a $100 billion global pie for commercial drones by 2022. “Drones can usually shorten a long process of producing 3-D renderings of a property,” Goldman Sachs indicated in a note. “Unmanned aerial vehicles may become a key tool for surveyors by allowing improved measurement accuracy and faster work.”
Financial consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers anticipates drones will replace $127.3 billion in labor and services in coming years, with more than a third of the sum deriving from construction and infrastructure.
The technology may prove particularly beneficial for large infrastructure, mining, oil, and gas projects that, on average, proceed 20 months behind schedule and 80 percent over budget, according to consultant IHS Global Insight‘s IHS Herold Global Projects Database.
“Drones are enabling contractors to attain on-demand aerial views of job sites, real time measurements of distance, area, and stockpile volume, as well as the creation of rich interactive maps,” Mike Winn, CEO and cofounder of DroneDeploy, recently noted in Construction Today. “The result is tracking job progress, identifying location of equipment, and measurement of volumes of materials is being done within minutes or hours instead of days and weeks.”
In the meantime, ground rules for use of drones are firmly in place. In June, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released its long-awaited Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107), effective August 29 and pertaining to commercial, non-recreational use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Among other provisions, the rule requires that “a person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command),” according to the FAA. Operators can earn certificates at testing centers throughout the US.
However, some industry members wonder whether drone technology is flying too high, too soon. “Where it really breaks down is the the processing and analytics,” Tomislav Zigo, director of virtual design and construction with Chicago-based developer and design-build firm Clayco, recently recently told Fortune. “The software industry needs to provide us solutions. They were quick to jump on the bandwagon and say, ‘Here’s more data,’ but the last thing you need on a construction project is more data than you have time to process.”
“We are still in the learning phase with our customers as to what data they need to extract meaning,” Dominique Pouliquen, a drone initiative coordinator with industry software giant Autodesk, told Forbes. “There are still discoveries to be made.”
In June, Autodesk indicated it was investing in 3D Robotics, maker of Site Scan, a commercial drone platform. In November, the alliance began to bear fruit as Autodesk’s BIM capabilities were integrated with drone photography from Site Scan, the intent being to provide “unprecedented project visibility” to reduce construction delays and rework while assisting in identifying change-order requirements.
As designed, contractors can launch drones on preprogrammed routes, with a high-resolution camera capturing images of desired conditions or tasks. Upon each drone’s return, its images are automatically downloaded into a cloud and integrated with Autodesk’s design programs.
Site Scan incorporates orthomosaics, a feature used to measure true distances by adjusting for topographic relief, lens distortion, and camera tilt, providing an accurate representation of the earth’s surface. As a result, Site Scan provides perfectly overlaid design vector files with drone-captured orthomosaics, allowing field managers to prevent costly mistakes while promoting collaboration with team members who may not be on-site.
“You don’t think about construction that much, but it’s all around you, and it’s a huge source of employment,” Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics, noted during a press conference. “It’s the infrastructure of our nations, and it is in many ways still living in the paper era. So what we need to do is digitize the construction industry.”
Site Scan is one of many drone platformsin a field brimming with new applications. As Winn has advised, “Start small, start simple, start now.”