Drones in Construction
Perhaps no industry has adopted drones on a larger scale than the construction industry. From large multi-national firms to small family-owned operations, professionals in the space have seen the benefits of adding drones into their operations. Improvements in safety and productivity are significant and have a positive effect on the bottom line.
The data captured by a drone is useful to decision-makers at all levels. On the ground, people serving in roles such as the superintendent can use drones for keeping track of resources like the location of heavy equipment. Off-site, planners like project managers can track more significant metrics, like the actual progress of a build vs. planned progress.
For commercial drone pilots, it is an excellent time to get into the industry. In this article, we will discuss some of the common uses of drones in construction and the benefits drones bring to the table. We will then discuss the two ways you can provide your services; on your own or as part of a team.
Common Uses of UAVs in Construction
There are many uses for drones in construction. A few of the more common applications are mapping & 3D surveying, asset protection, equipment monitoring, project management, marketing, and inspections. All of these common uses represent areas the commercial drone pilot should be familiar with when working in the construction industry.
One of the easiest services to sell is mapping and 3D surveying. The cost of using a drone to create a map is far less expensive than a survey team. According to Home Advisor, an online site for hiring professionals in the industry, the average cost to hire a surveyor for a single-family home is typically between $345-$675. Compare this with a commercial drone pilot whose average rate is $125-$150 for the same task.
Maps are easily created using most prosumer drones and the right software. Companies like Pix4D and DroneDeploy make it easy to plan a mission, fly over a location, upload the images, and produce accurate maps and 3D models. Maps are used in all phases of construction, from planning to building and eventually in demolition.
Security and asset protection are usually not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a construction site. The reality is that sites are an attractive target for thieves. Tools, heavy equipment, materials, and vehicles are all at risk. A commercial drone pilot can monitor a site during the day and night (with a waiver) to protect the company's assets.
Construction utilizes a great deal of heavy equipment. Cranes, bulldozers, front loaders, and graders are valuable resources. On more significant sites, there is almost always not enough heavy equipment to go around. Managing a construction operation successfully requires balancing the needs of everyone with the limited equipment available.
Drones can fly over a site and identify the location of heavy equipment and whether it is currently in use. Some UAV companies, such as Australian based Propeller, have developed drone Aeropoints and heavy equipment tracking devices to handle this very task as a critical component of their business model.
Project managers are tasked with the planning and monitoring of progress on a construction site. While superintendents and site managers handle the day to day operations on the ground, project managers are behind the scenes tracking everything. An endless procession of Gantt charts and spreadsheets tells the tale of whether a project is on schedule and within the planned budget or not.
One of the more time-consuming tasks is inspecting the sight to monitor the status of builds. A commercial drone pilot can handle this task anytime it is needed. Weekly or even daily updates can be available to the project manager without ever leaving the office.
In construction, most projects are won through a competitive bidding process. Interested firms review requests for proposals from people or entities looking to hire their services. Contractors write up detailed proposals to quote and bid on the project. Bids quote the cost and time to complete the project and why the contractor believes they have the skills to complete the task.
Photographs of previous projects are one method builders use to prove they have the experience to handle the job they are bidding on. Aerial photography offers a great perspective for marketing a contractor's services. With a few well planning shots, a commercial drone pilot can provide images and video that may win future work.
Another standard role for drones in the industry is conducting aerial inspections. Drones can handle daily checks on equipment and existing infrastructure with ease. During the construction of buildings, drones can inspect all phases of the build for signs of defects or errors like cracks, uneven surfaces, and leaning walls.
Benefits of Drones in Construction
When it comes to construction, there are three primary benefits to using drone technology. As you can probably see from the examples of how drones are used in the industry, these benefits are cost-savings, decreased time to complete specific tasks, and improving safety.
Traditional methods for specific tasks, like surveying, are much more expensive than the average cost of using a drone. As we saw earlier, competitive rates for a commercial drone pilot are a fraction of what it would cost for a land survey team.
In the past, massive projects might require a helicopter for planners to understand the progress of the site. UAVs can provide decision-makers with the same data at a fraction of even the fuel cost of a crewed aircraft, let alone the value of the helicopter's actual service.
As the saying goes, "time is money." With decreasing profit margins over the last decade, the time drones save contractors is just as important as the money they save. In some cases, it may even be more critical to save time over saving money. Some contracts come with penalties for not completing specific phases of a build on time.
The data drones collect helps planners make timely decisions related to operations and logistics. For example, let us assume a site has a large pile of drywall sheets. If the supply is all used up before more are dropped off at the location, production may come to a halt. Drones can monitor supply levels to ensure time is not lost on the project due to avoidable mistakes.
You cannot put a price on human life. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 150,000 people are injured on construction sites annually. Over 1,000 deaths occur each year as well. Minimizing the risk to human life is extremely important. Drones can perform dangerous tasks, such as inspections high above the ground, without risk to people.
Lower rates of work-related injuries and deaths translate to fewer hours lost on the job and lower insurance rates.
Joining a Team or Flying Solo
Commercial drone pilots have two options for working in the construction industry. Pilots have the option of working as a direct-hire or as an independent contractor.
Many of the largest companies have existing UAV programs. Bechtel is one of the largest engineering and construction firms globally and has been using its own drones since 2015. Companies like Kespry provide drone services to the industry with their in-house drones and pilots.
Working as a direct-hire typically comes with benefits such as a set salary and medical insurance. The trade-off is, of course, your employer dictates your time and what you will be doing.
If you would like to work in this capacity, get your resume ready. Expect to have a decent amount of logged flight hours under your belt. I think 40 hours is enough to make you a pretty proficient pilot; however, I have seen many of these positions require over 100 hours of logged flight time.
Additionally, I would recommend having a solid understanding of the construction industry. Like other disciplines, construction has a language of its own, and certain norms in the way projects are run. If you do not know the difference between masonry and carpentry, you should before applying for these positions. Research construction practices or better yet take a course at a community college to improve your understanding of the industry.
If having a cap to the amount of money you can make and working for someone else is not your cup of tea, become an independent contractor. On the plus side, you can choose the type of work you want to take on and only work when you want to. Conversely, you will not have a steady paycheck, and the cost of insurance, equipment, and other expenses will be your burden.
I have worked both as a direct-hire and independent contractor in this industry. My preference is to work for myself but choose what makes the most sense for you and your personal goals.
If you decide to operate as an independent contractor, marketing your services is vital. Build a portfolio and use it in marketing materials to showcase your abilities. Nothing sells more than showing clients how they can save time, decrease costs, and improve safety by hiring you.
Whichever path you decide on, the construction industry is an excellent place for commercial drone pilots now and in the foreseeable future.
Meet The Author
David Daly is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former United States Marine Corps officer. He is a consultant to the UAV industry and runs a commercial UAV company (Vigilante Drones) and a non-profit (Vigilante Cares) which uses drones to help military veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).