The use of drones in construction projects
There is a perpetual myth the construction industry trails other industries in the drive for modernisation. Whilst this may be true in labour and recruitment practices, it is not a universal truth.
Over the years, the construction sector has needed to adapt and change in response to social, political, and environmental policies and demands. For example, at the end of WWII the construction industry had to respond to the demands of large volume housing, during the Thatcher years the industry had to deal with extensive privatisation and more recently, at short notice, the industry came together to find a way of continuing operations in the face of a global pandemic. It is a resilient and responsive industry which has embraced the digital age and particularly through its increased use of drone technology.
It is estimated that a significant number of drones have been used or are used on construction projects. We shall explore some of the reasons for this before turning to see how drones could impact construction projects in the future.
Using drones on construction projects
Data capture is the singular most crucial aspect of using drone technology on construction projects and it is application can be seen across the entire construction lifecycle:
- Drones are incredibly accurate, and this can be particularly convenient for an initial survey and measurement of a site when accessibility may be limited. The aerial footage will assist in the collating essential early impact assessments and sensors can be attached to drones to detect soil contamination and other essential site data.
- Drones are compatible with Building Information Modelling (BIM) software which means many aspects of the construction process can be streamlined. The drone can undertake repetitive tasks in a cost-efficient manner and the data captured can be incorporated into the BIM software providing designers with valuable information to create 3D models.
- The real time data capture will be of huge benefit to monitoring and assessing on site progress and more cost effective than traditional weekly progress mapping. Clients will be able to see real time progress and project monitors will be able to identify gaps or inefficiencies at an early stage before they become cost and time critical. The real time data capture will also feed into developing an information rich BIM model and facilitate better communication and exchange of information on site.
- Drones can also support security and maintenance on site during the build phase. Security breaches can be identified quickly and the use of thermal imagery will allow out of hours security. It provides peace of mind and reduces security costs.
- The workplace health and safety aspect of drone use is tremendous. Drones can be deployed to monitor dangerous areas of a construction site without exposing workers to hazardous conditions and the real time data capture will allow immediate responses to safety concerns.
- Post the construction phase, in maintaining a building, drones can be deployed to inspect the building. This is particularly useful for high rise buildings, which might otherwise only be accessible by erecting scaffolding.
Peter Folwell of Plowman & Craven sees the cost benefit in using drones on projects and said “The construction industry is starting to embrace drone technology, there is an understanding that it could bring a number of benefits. There are various applications where having timely information or the ability for real-time assessment could be proactive in reducing construction costs”
The advantages of using drone technology are numerous but could these be negated by the cost of operating the drones and compliance with the regulations?
Regulatory requirements for drone operation
The commercial operation of a drone requires a number of operational documents. At a basic level to fly a drone weighing over 250g the pilot must have a flyer ID, the person operating the drone must have an operator ID and the drone must be labelled with the operator ID. There are further stipulations for the drone operator based on the risk assessment of flying, which will take into account where it is flying, the proximity of the fight to others, and the size and weight of the drone. There are three categories of drone operation:
(a) Open Category for low risk operations where authorisation will not be required but use will be subject to strict operational limitations;
(b) Specific Category for medium-risk operations where operators will need authorisation from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on the basis of a standardised risk assessment or a specific scenario; and
(c) Certified Category for high-risk operations where traditional aviation rules apply.
In built up areas like London, there will be additional restrictions and permissions required where the drone is to be operated in airspace restricted zones. Generally, drones must be kept away from people and congested areas making it much trickier to operate a drone in these areas.
Peter Folwell noted that whilst the licencing requirements may prove cost prohibitive for some operators “the key fact is that the drone will be flying in public air space and the operators have to be professional and skilled to operate in this environment. Flying a drone commercially is well regulated but once you have permissions then it is a cost effective method of data collection”.
Drone operators will need to ensure they have in place appropriate insurances as well as understand the practical limitations of operating drones, like the weather.
Future of drones on construction sites
The construction industry can learn from other sectors which have adopted drone technology. For example, drones are being used by logistics companies to transport goods between locations and by medics for distributing medical supplies. In the manufacturing sector, SEAT is using drones to transport components between two of its production plants reducing delivery time from 90 minutes to 15 minutes.
The construction sector has only just scratched the surface of how drone technology could benefit project development. There is potential to bridge the gap between offsite and onsite work and drones could be used to deliver goods to site on a just in time basis. Peter Folwell said “Safe and improved goods transportation on site could be a continued development area going forward. If it isn’t happening already, the drone pilot will be a regular fixture on a construction site.”
The drone industry is rapidly evolving in all sectors but it will require an infrastructure to support its advantages such as forming drone corridors to fly drones beyond the pilot’s line of sight, creating a comprehensive air traffic control system to avoid mid-air collisions and collaborating with landowners to establish a framework that permit drones to fly within privately owned airspace. This could take many years to establish country wide.
As drone use becomes commonplace in the built environment, the construction industry will need to be mindful of the regulatory changes on the horizon and the potential of multiple drones in the sky. Particular attention will need to be paid if a construction site is within a drone corridor and in such circumstances, it may not be practical to use drones, as relocating a corridor is likely to require CAA and landowner co-operation.
Drones can be very useful to a construction project. As the infrastructure for drones increase, so too will their utility. The UK is investing heavily in the drone sector to ensure that drones realise their potential. We will likely see substantial progress in how drones are used on construction sites in the next 5 to 10 years.
This article was first published in Design & Build on 18th March 2021.