From site planning to completion, drones keep construction projects on track.

7 Construction Jobs for Drones

Sep 25, 2019

by Mark Crawford

Drones are becoming essential tools on construction sites. With advanced optical equipment and GPS technologies, drones are redefining how engineers and general contractors design and construct buildings. Drones easily deliver highly accurate photos, measurements, and visuals in real time, assuring quality and streamlining the construction process. On-site managers rely on drone-gathered data to make informed decisions in the field. Drones are also cheaper and faster than traditional surveying methods.

Below are seven ways drones can benefit a construction project.

Site Planning
After a drone captures aerial images of the property, the photographs are combined with the site plan to create more accurate layouts. “By superimposing the drawing over an image of the actual site, designers and owners can easily visualize where various features will be located,” said Peter Wu, director of QA/QC for Stellar, a construction firm in Jacksonville, FL. “This gives the builder a tangible understanding of the site plan in the context of the land so that they can easily and accurately accommodate for geographic features and other variables.”

Tracking Progress
Progress photos are essential for managing the project and identifying any problems or discrepancies. Cut and fill maps can be instantly generated to plan grading and contouring. Using the data software, multiple datasets can be compared over any time period to check construction progress. Drones can be sent up as frequently as needed on highly precise flight paths to check any areas of special interest. Regular flyovers are a simple and inexpensive way to provide extensive data to share with team leaders.

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FLIR thermal image of a construction site. Image: 3DR
3D Scans
Drones can capture photos and video from any height or angle, which is especially valuable for hard-to-reach places. They can also provide photogrammetry scanning of existing structures. “High-resolution photos create a 3D point cloud model, allowing designers to measure everything from the windows on a building to the cars in the parking lot,” said Wu. “This is especially useful for constructing renovations and additions, since it provides an accurate real-world representation of the existing conditions.”

Virtual Models
The 3D scans captured by drones can also be converted into models that can be “walked” in virtual reality (VR),” said Wu. “By putting on VR goggles, owners can see what the exterior of the finished product will look like and understand the spatial relationships between the building and building additions from a pedestrian point-of-view.” Accurate construction drawings can also be created from the 3D drone scans.

Better Collaboration
Drones can serve as a central source of collecting data. Records of all flights, uploads, and measurements can be stored and retrieved or distributed to another platform, such as BIM 360. Up-to-date reports and maps can be generated. “Virtual design teams, engineers, superintendents, owners, and contractors can access this data from their iPads and other devices,” said Nico Bonnafoux, a senior architect at 3DR, a drone technology company based in Berkeley, California. “This enables everyone to see where things were yesterday, compare progress over time, and catch any discrepancies before they become serious problems.”

Improved Safety
3DR states that the leading cause of private-sector worker fatalities on the construction site is falls, representing nearly 39 percent of all deaths. To counter this, drones can identify potentially hazardous situations and “be used to keep workers’ feet planted firmly on the ground when they might otherwise have to climb to take manual measurements or engage in other activities that can be replaced with a drone,” said Hugh McFall, product marketing manager for 3DR.

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Mitigate Risk
Construction is a high-risk business with multiple subcontractors on site, busy schedules, design changes, complex billing, and sometimes contractual or legal challenges. Drones can document every step of the construction process in great detail, which can be important regarding disputes or legal challenges. “For example,” said Bonnafoux, “one of our customers used its drone data to help win a dispute with a subcontractor who was significantly overcharging them. By having accurate daily site documentation, our customer resolved the dispute and saved over $100,000 without having to go to court.”

Images captured by drones can be truly stunning. Drones are impressive devices that can, quite dramatically, capture beautiful videos and photographs, from virtually any height or angle, close or far. They can reach places that humans cannot, “meaning you can capture a wide range of images of your building,” added Wu. “These can be utilized in marketing collateral, on a company’s website, on social media platforms and beyond. Don’t underestimate the potential of how powerful images can drive your business forward.”

Mark Crawford is a technology writer based in Madison, Wis.