Construction Drones:Eyes in the Sky Climb as Temporary Regulations Near

AS INDUSTRY AWAITS FORMAL RULES, drone use on job sites is rising and contractors like graycor are ready for more

by ROB McMANAMY and TODD STOLARSKI | May 19, 2015

Recognizing that market demand seems to be outpacing the courts, two U.S. senators this month proposed temporary bipartisan legislation that would allow limited commercial drone use until permanent rules from the Federal Aviation Administration can be developed and implemented. Since that “accelerated” process is expected to take years, the aim of the proposed law is to keep U.S. industry competitive with related innovations already being tried in other countries.

On May 12, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and John Hoeven (R-ND), introduced the Commercial UAS Modernization Act, legislation that sets interim operating guidelines for commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

“There is so much potential that can be unlocked if we lay the proper framework to support innovation,” said Sen. Booker. Added Sen. Hoeven, “We’re on the frontier of a whole new era of aviation, when remotely piloted aircraft will improve crop production, provide valuable aid for first responders and even deliver packages to our doorstep.”

Having just concluded its annual conference in Atlanta, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which represents some 7,500 individual members and 600 corporations, welcomed the new bill. “Their proposed legislation elevates UAS as a national priority, ensuring the industry can quickly and safely takeoff in the U.S. and keep pace with other countries that already have more permissive UAS regulations,” said AUVSI President & CEO Brian Wynne. “The sooner we allow the broader use of this technology, the more quickly the U.S. will realize the many societal and economic benefits of UAS.”

Safety (and jobs) from above

According to its own economic study, AUVSI estimates that by 2025, “the industry will represent an $82-billion segment of the U.S. economy and generate more than 100,000 new, high-paying jobs.” As of this spring, less than 200 U.S. firms have been approved by the FAA for commercial use of UAS technology, and only a handful are in the construction industry. That select list now includes multinational giant Bechtel Corp., San Francisco. “Drones are interesting to us in two aspects: safety and process,” said Mike Lewis, Bechtel’s global manager of construction, speaking last month in ENR. In 2013, Bechtel already had partnered with San Francisco-based Skycatch Inc. to develop a new inspection tool that would enhance worker safety and reduce risk. Its “unique platform is connected to a cloud for real-time analytics and has preprogramed geographic controls for safe operation and compliance with flight announcements,” Lewis explained.

On Tuesday, June 23, during Chicago TechWeek, BuiltWorlds and AUVSI Heartland will be co-hosting Robots to the Rescue: The Evolution of Unmanned Vehicles. For more on that event, click here.

To learn more about one contractor’s successful recent experience with drones, see below.

In the built environment, other uses are being explored and tried by contractors on job sites across the U.S. One such firm is Graycor Construction Co., based in Oakbrook Terrace IL. The general contractor has used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) successfully for several purposes on multiple facilities in Arizona: a 1.3-million-sq-ft complex, 10 West Logistics Center, in Phoenix; the three-building, 177,750-sq-ft LaPour Parc 17 industrial park near Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport; and a new, 308,000-sq-ft, FedEx Ground distribution center in Chandler AZ. BuiltWorlds this month spoke with Geovanni Villalta, Graycor’s project manager at and Josh Ball, a senior project engineer with Graycor on the LaPour Parc 17 project.

BW: How have you used UAVs on your project and what are the benefits?

GV: The use of UAVs on the jobsite can be very impactful. Not only can you capture progress photos, but the video aspect of it lets you view of the project in a completely new light. It helps capture the true size of it, which sometimes photos tend to minimize. And this is a true costs savings [since] we no longer have to pay a helicopter to take progress photos. Moving forward, the use of these UAVs will increase. There are countless benefits in using this technology.

JB: We are currently using them for general photography and land surveillance, both for company use, and to keep our client informed on the progression of the project. This technology can provide a safer means of performing certain tasks, which in turn leads to higher quality and increased productivity. Our industry is always looking for new and innovative ways to increase these benefits without increasing costs. For certain applications, UAVs can do just that.

“Moving forward, the use of these UAVs will increase. There are countless benefits in using this technology. ”

— Geovanni Villalta, Graycor

BW: What do you see as some of these other beneficial uses?

GV:  Taking photos/videos of the site prior to construction. The UAVs make this process easier to document existing conditions. This could resolve any potential conflicts during and after project completion about what the existing conditions were… Also, UAVs can take photos and video at different angles and locations that may not otherwise be captured with a helicopter or other means of photography, such as areas that can’t be reached due to obstructions… You can show an inspector or client something at an elevated level without having to rent a lift… And you can also see from a bird’s eye view how much work has been completed and what remains, which helps with tracking the schedule. We even use them for interior photography, as well.

JB: General photography is where it started, but as this technology evolves, I believe we will see a much larger impact on the jobsite. From surveillance to security to inspections on hard-to-reach, unsafe areas, that growth is already happening. I foresee them being used more for logistics.

10 West Logistics Center, shiny and complete. (Photo courtesy of Graycor)

10 West Logistics Center, shiny and complete. (Photo courtesy of Graycor)


BW: With our industry notoriously set in its ways, how has it accepted this new technology? 

GV: I find that clients are utilizing these UAVs for their own management to help track our progress on the project. I am also finding that some of the larger trades are using them for the same purpose. There is a new generation of construction field personnel now who have grown up with all this new technology so, in my opinion, this type of change will be easily accepted and implemented.


BW: A decade from now, how do you see drones being used on the job site of the future?

GV:  I see drones being used readily. If the technology continues on its course, I could see the potential that it will take over some of the surveying scopes, such as measuring the completion of as-built information, and topographic information.

BW: How has the FAA approval process affected the use of these UAVs? 

GV: With the UAVs we have used, there are set restrictions within the drone and its communication with the satellite that prohibit it from flying in restricted air space, or at certain heights.

JB: Regulations are ever changing, and it has been a struggle keeping up with current requirements.


BW: Drones carry a generally negative stigma. How can that image be overcome? 

GV:  Drones can be utilized to go into confined spaces, or areas that you typically wouldn’t want to expose a construction worker to. Or if an area is not secure due to site conditions, or after demolition, for example, a drone can be used to scout the area, minimizing the safety risk.

JB:  Unfortunately, as with all new and unfamiliar technologies, the misguided actions of a few tend to affect the mindset of the masses. I think safety on the jobsite will become their most important job. As the video/photo quality continues to get better, and the maneuverability gets easier, I believe we will be using this tech to inspect hazardous & hard-to-reach areas with much more ease.

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