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Frontline: UAVs Provide Construction Industry With Clearer Sight Line

As companies increasingly use drones to monitor progress on construction projects, the FAA is easing restrictions that are currently limiting their use.

Q4 2018
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly being used by a number of industries, with the construction industry leading the way. A report by Goldman Sachs estimates that total global spending on drones in the commercial market will reach $100 billion over the next two years. Of that, approximately $11.2 billion will be generated by the construction industry.

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed commercial drone use for a broad range of businesses, but with restrictions: pilots must be at least 16 years old and pass a written test. Equipped with still and/or video cameras and remote-sensing technology, drones are making it easier and cheaper to make aerial site surveys and collect other data. They can quickly provide digital images, maps, and other files that can be shared electronically.

Advantages & Challenges
Minneapolis-based Kraus-Anderson (KA), one of the largest construction firms in the Midwest, uses a DJI Phantom 4 drone for surveying sites, doing quality inspections, documenting project progress, and marketing purposes. “Drones give us access to a lot of information we’re not able to get standing on the ground,” says Andrea Blair, a BIM (building information modeling) specialist at KA. “We’ve been able to fly up and down an 18-story building to inspect building wraps, check caulking, and make sure all of the windows are air- and water-tight” using thermal cameras that can detect temperature changes.

The major challenges that can limit drone use are adverse weather conditions and, in the case of projects that are located near airports, “no-fly” zones. An unmanned aircraft system (UAS) can be flown in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace without an authorization from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). To fly in all other airspace classes, FAA and ATC (Air Traffic Control) authorization are required. The FAA is working to make the approval process quicker by rolling out a program which offers near real-time approval/authorization, Blair says. Drones can be programmed to provide automated notification to ATC, which makes it easier to use them near airports, notes Blair.

Drones give us access to a lot of information we’re not able to get standing on the ground. We’ve been able to fly up and down an 18-story building to inspect building wraps, check caulking, and make sure all of the windows are air- and water-tight using thermal cameras that can detect temperature changes. Andrea Blair, BIM (building information modeling) specialist, KA Sierra Pacific West, a San Diego-based engineering contracting firm specializing in heavy highway, roadway, public school, memorial, community parks, and agency-related work projects, has been using drones since 2014, according to company President Tom Brown. “Our original purpose was to fly over sites we couldn’t see, for our estimating department,” Brown says. Today, the firm uses drones to survey terrain where it is doing large roadway and other infrastructure projects in sites that are difficult to access. About 80 percent of its drone flights are handled in-house, headed by a company vice president who has become “pretty well oriented to it,” Brown says.

The company uses drones equipped with GPS modeling systems to find out things like how much dirt has been moved on a given day. “We do GPS modeling on a lot of projects where we have individuals on the ground,” Brown explains. The drone mapping is surprisingly accurate, within 1 percent of the calculations made by on-the-ground personnel, he says. The company has two drones it uses to make daily flights over large projects to monitor progress. “We have the ability to see almost instantly what we are doing,” Brown says.

The biggest challenge for his company has been “trying to understand how to incorporate [drones] into our daily business. We had a conflict within the company because some people wanted to use them for estimating, then business development started to want to use them for marketing,” Brown says. “At the end of the day, they’ve been extremely useful for record-keeping, photography, and looking at progress.”

According to Goldman Sachs, the next generation of drone technology “will widen the gap between manned and unmanned flight even further, adding even greater stealth, sensory, payload, range, autonomous, and communications capabilities.” The biggest limitation on the use of commercial drones seems to be regulation. Under FAA regulations, drones cannot fly higher than 400 feet, or 400 feet over a building. The FAA has rules against operating drones over people and limiting use to a pilot’s line of sight. But commercial users can obtain waivers to gain exemption from those rules. They must be flown by someone with a remote pilot certification. But, according to Goldman, the FAA is expected to further ease restrictions that are keeping commercial drones from reaching their full potential, which represents an addressable market of $11.164 billion in the construction industry.

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