Construction Drones

A New Swiss Army Knife for Wall and Ceiling Contractors

Joe Dysart / April 2019

No longer a plaything of gadget-lovers, drones are making serious inroads with wall and ceiling contractors, enabling those businesses to save significant dollars on surveying, creating 3D renderings of jobs on-the-fly, regularly capturing videos of jobs in progress—and more.
   
“It’s all about empowering worksites with the information they need to make data-driven decisions to reduce costs, ensure quality and use resources efficiently,” says John Frost, vice president, business development, Propeller (www.propelleraero.com), a maker of cloud-based drone analytics software. “Now more than ever, stakeholders on site—or in the head office miles away—can stay up-to-date with exactly what’s happening on the ground.”
   
Adds Michael Chasen, CEO of PrecisionHawk (www.precisionhawk.com), another maker of drone aircraft and software for the construction industry: “Drones have proven to be a transformative force for business intelligence and operations.”
   
Those sentiments are echoed by the “Construction Technology Trends – 2018 Report” from SoftwareConnect (https://softwareconnect.com/construction/technology-trends-2018-report/), which found that 26 percent of small to midsize construction businesses are either already using drones on the job site or plan to use them by 2020.
   
The survey also found that 35 percent of medium and large companies that are using drones are construction and engineering firms. And nearly 18 percent of those surveyed said they are currently using drones for photogrammetry—or the process of stitching together a series of photos to create a comprehensive view of indoor or outdoor scenes.
   
One of the greatest benefits of a drone for wall and ceiling contractors is its ability to quickly capture a comprehensive view of any job site. Simply schedule a flight with the software, and the drone will fly and report on the progress of your project as often as you’d like—once a week, once a day—or even once an hour.
   
Skycatch’s Explore 1, for example, is one of a number of drone software solutions that offer the ability to easily chronicle a project on a daily basis.
   
“Conducting a site survey using a drone used to take hours,” says Chikashi Shike, president, Smart Construction Promotion at Komatsu. “But by implementing Explore1 (https://www.skycatch.com/solution/hpp/), users can carry out surveying quickly and easily. Now it is possible to perform drone surveying every day.”
   
Shike says all settings for a typical drone flight with Explore 1—taking off, route planning and landing—are automated with the software. And the package can also immediately generate a 3D map can be immediately for easy job site study.
   
Meanwhile, other packages like DroneDeploy (www.dronedeploy.com), a cloud-based drone software solution, are specially designed to keep a running historic account of job progress, which you and your customers can access at any time.
   
“Regular site progress reports offer context and add new dimensions to construction projects. However, it’s difficult to create consistent site imagery over the course of a project,” says Mike Winn, CEO, DroneDeploy. “Progress photos (included in DroneDeploy) solves this by creating a visual timeline of a project from start to finish.”
   
Most drone software solutions also offer the ability to automatically upload captured video to the cloud, where it can be easily distributed to your crew, business partners, subcontractors and customers.
   
The benefit comes in very handy, for example, when you need to give a customer a walk-through on an unexpected development in a project—such as mold found behind a wall, or the questionable integrity of a load-bearing beam—with up-close video taken with a drone.
   
Plus, project-progress maps generated by drones can also generally be easily printed and posted in hardcopy form on site to give everyone involved in the project a quick update on how the job is progressing.

Many More Benefits
The additional good news on drones for wall and ceiling contractors is that the software behind the aircraft has evolved well beyond the simple ability to fly and navigate miniature aircraft. These days, the best drone software is custom-tailored to offer additional features beneficial to the construction industry.
   
Some designed-for-construction-industry drone software solutions, for example, have the ability to integrate with a popular construction industry package you may be using. And still other drone software solutions enable you to overlay drone video of a job site on pre-existing CAD or PDF design files.
   
“It has become clear that data and software are the real end-game in effective commercial drone use by enterprises,” says Michael de Lagarde, CEO, Delair (https://delair.aero/), a drones solutions provider.
   
Besides offering ongoing monitoring of a job site, drones are also custom-tailored for getting at hard-to-reach and dangerous locations at a job site. Why roll-out a 40-foot ladder to closely inspect some suspicious cracks in a ceiling, for example, when you can send a drone to do the same job?
   
Or why put the safety of your crew at risk when you can send in a drone to inspect for safety hazards at a new job location? Ditto for scouting safety hazards that occur once a project is underway. For example: If there’s a sudden collapse of wood and glass inside a structure you already know is unreliable, why send in a crew member to see what happened when you can send a small drone to retrieve the same intel?
   
Drones are also a natural for off-hours security on a job site. The ongoing buzz and spectacle of a spotlight-equipped drone, for example, is probably protection enough against most thieves looking to pilfer your job site while you’re away.
   
Moreover, getting a close look at suspicious activity is also another natural drone application. Hear the clip of bolt cutters on a chain link fence in the early morning hours? Or maybe it’s the rumble of a suddenly fired-up engine on a valuable piece of construction equipment stored on-site?
   
Better to send a drone in to do the surveillance—and capture valuable video that may be needed for a court case down the line—than ask a 19-year-old watching your job site to risk life and limb to collect the same information.
   
“Drones make construction sites safer,” says DroneDepoly’s Winn.
   
Of course, drones are also great for inspecting job sites overseen by your subcontractors. Essentially, it’s one thing to secure assurances that everything’s going “just fine” at a remote location that’s too far for you to visit regularly.
   
But it’s much more reassuring to get proof-positive that the project progress is real with daily, weekly or monthly video of the job site.
   
Not surprisingly, all of these common drone uses for construction—along with many more that will inevitably surface as drones become an everyday tool in the industry—are saving wall and ceiling and other contractors significant dollars.
   
Essentially, surveying is less expensive with drones, as is daily monitoring of job sites, ongoing safety inspections of job sites, site map creation, communication with partners and customers—and any number of additional uses. “Worksites are starting to see the real business value of accurate, up-to-date drone data,” says Propeller’s Frost.

Shopping for Construction Drone Tech: Best Practices
Should you decide to add a drone to your wall and ceiling toolbox, shopping the market with an informed frame of reference should enable you to buy right the first time, ensuring you acquire a drone solution precisely suited to your wall and ceiling business.
   
Skyward, a drone solution provider, recommends these shopping best practices in its excellent, thorough guide, “Drones in Construction: A Guide to Launching Your Program” (https://go.skyward.io/drones-in-construction.html):

  • Realize going in that rotorcraft drones (drones that look like mini-helicopters) are more often used indoors or on relatively small job sites. Fixed wing drones, which look more like mini-planes, are more often used for surveying large job sites.
  • Also realize that drones and drone software can be purchased as a complete package—or purchased separately. Obviously, if you’re buying drone aircraft from one vendor and software from another, you’ll want to personally confirm that both work seamlessly together before making the purchases.
  • For any construction application, you’ll want also want software that enables you to automatically schedule and control drone flights. The package should also be able to generate high quality maps—including elevation maps—and generate 3D models.
  • Also look for software that enables you to keep records on drone maintenance, along with pilot assignments and related paperwork. Good construction drone software also enables you to maintain records for billing and audits.
  • Drone construction software featuring advanced photogrammetry is also a major bonus. Software with advanced photogrammetry automates the process of collecting images while a drone is in flight and automates the stitching processing needed to collate those photos into a comprehensive view of a job site.
  • Higher-end drone construction software also enables you to automatically export drone-collected data to other software packages you may be using, such as Autodesk or ArcGIS.
  • You’ll also want to keep an eye out for drone construction software driven by artificial intelligence. Today’s AI software is equipped with algorithms that enable all sorts of software to learn over time to be more efficient, more effective and more creative. Given the exponential growth of AI underway, it’s inevitable that increasing numbers of drone software packages will incorporate AI features in coming years.
  • Buying a drone and drone software also means someone on your team will be responsible for maintenance on the hardware and responsible for ensuring that any drone software updates get implemented.

   
Fortunately, qualifying for certification has become much easier. Thanks to a Federal Aviation rule issued in 2016 – Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule Part 107—anyone who passes a remote pilot certification exam can legally fly a drone for commercial purposes.
   
That rule has been a boon to construction contractors who can designate a specific employee already on their payroll to assume responsibility for drone flights. That’s generally a much more cost-effective solution that subcontracting drone flights from a third party.

  • You’ll also want to look into drone insurance, which should enable you to operate professionally, safeguard your investment and assets, protect your wall and ceiling business against liability—and if you’re a public company, enable you to meet investor requirements.


Construction Drone Tools to Check Out
Fortunately, there’s a wide array of drones and drone software available that’s specially designed for the construction industry. Here’s a representative sampling:

  • Delair (https://delair.aero/professional-drones-2/professional-mapping-drone-delair-ux11-2/), Delair UX11 UAV drone: Delair offers a drone/software package that automatically generates advanced analytics for your wall and ceiling project, including map creation, digital surface models, 3D point clouds and orthomosaics. Construction data gleaned from the drone can be used for taking measurements, gauging volume or stock pile calculations, emergency damage mapping and more.
  • 3D Robotics Site Scan (https://3dr.com/products/site-scan-platform/): Site Scan enables construction contractors to capture centimeter-accurate maps and models of their work sites, which can be automatically uploaded to the cloud. The software also enables you to overlay CAD or PDF design files over a map to precisely verify if a project as designed is being implemented real world. And visual data picked up by the drone can also be integrated with Autodesk BIM 360. Contractors use the solution to monitor how a job site changes over time, which can be distributed to both crews and customers.
  • Drone Volt (www.dronevolt.com/en): Drone Volt offers a number of drones that contractors can use for site supervision, 3D modeling of buildings and rooms, heat balance measurements and visual analysis of façades, roofs, hard-to-reach corners and more.
  • Dronedeploy Live Map (www.dronedeploy.com/product/live-map): Live Map software enables contractors to capture visual data in real time, as well as schedule a drone flight with just a few steps. Like many other solutions, the software is used for surveying and construction and produces shareable drone maps, 3D models, photos and more.
  • Pix4D Pix4Dbim 3D mapping software (www.pix4d.com): Pix4D is another package specialized for use in construction. All video generated by the software can be automatically uploaded to the cloud and shared with crews and customers.
  • Airware, Inc. (www.airware.com/en): Airware is yet another cloud-based software solution that captures video on construction sites, which can be used to disseminate to crews and customers and to compare design against real world implementation.

   
Other companies to check out that specialize in drone tech for construction include Dreamhammer Inc. (www.dreamhammer.com), ESRI (www.esri.com), Sensefly Ltd. (www.sensefly.comhttp://www.esri.com), Skyward Io (https://skyward.io/), Delta Drone (www.deltadrone.com/en).

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan. Email: joe@dysartnewsfeatures.com. Web: https://dysartnewsfeatures.com.