Entering the Drone Age

by Balfour Beatty
According to Chinese astrology, 2017 is the year of the fire rooster. Techies argue it might be better classified as the year of the drone.

It isn’t just hobbyists, however, who are taking their aerial exploits to the next level. Business usage is also soaring, thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration’s 2016 finalization of regulations governing civil and commercial drone operations. Balfour Beatty paved the way for the construction industry soon thereafter, developing a strategic, thoughtful and safe framework for drone flights on our jobsites. Over the last year, we’ve witnessed these “eyes in the sky” enhance project management, and their benefits to our clients and partners are growing by the day.

To understand the construction industry’s excitement about drones, think first about the role of images in our business. Before shovels hit dirt, builders use aerial views of sites or existing buildings to develop logistics plans and Building Information Models. Images collected using surveying equipment and laser scanners further inform project strategies. During construction, teams catalog real-time photographic data for inspections and progress reports—just to name a few use cases. In construction, imagery isn’t just important—it’s absolutely indispensable.

Reality capture was once unavailable or cost-prohibitive for field personnel, but thanks to drone technology, this data is now incredibly affordable and accessible. By processing multiple images taken in a specific pattern, drones can be used to produce orthophotos or uniform-scale photographs. Aerial perspectives typically contain distortions caused by camera angle and topography, but orthophotos possess the pinpoint reliability of a map. Low and high-altitude shots from vertical, horizontal and oblique angles—drones can obtain them quickly, accurately and safely.

Better images equal better information. And better information makes for better builders.

Maybe it’s a leak you’re investigating. With a thermal imaging sensor, a drone can tell you if a gasket has been compromised by detecting the heat in the water. Want a quick fact check on how much dirt has been removed from your site? A drone can provide it in near real-time. Need to inspect a slab edge? A drone eliminates the time and risk associated with trade partners working from a swing stage. Perhaps you’re punching the exterior of a downtown high-rise. A drone can photograph mortar joints 18 stories high from 18 inches away. Don’t have space for a traditional crane inspection? A drone can prevent costly access arrangements, and more importantly, eliminate the hazards inherent to personnel working from heights.

“More than ever, owners are relying on our ability to push the innovation envelope,” affirms Daniel Shirkey, senior director of technology and operations improvement in California. “Drones drive efficiencies into every facet of the construction process that result in cost and time savings for our clients. That’s a win-win in my book.”

As one example, Mike Weber, project executive overseeing San Diego Community College’s new $32 million Center for Business Technology Building at Mesa College, discovered firsthand how drones can enhance a project’s outcome. “Our subcontractor’s earthwork contract was written for maximum import and export quantities,” notes Mike. “Based on previous experience, I knew that negotiations between the earthwork subcontractor and the owner can turn adversarial, because each has differing opinions on actual earthwork amounts.”

To alleviate the possibility of any conflict, the project team utilized drones to capture aerial images of the site. These images were then combined with drone data software capable of providing verifiable earthwork quantities. Once precise quantities had been obtained, they were applied to an agreed upon unit cost. The result produced an owner credit that can be used for enhancements on the current project, or for a new project altogether.

From the Stone Age to the Drone Age, construction has required continuous innovation and progressive investments in both people and technology. Though today’s trending gadget can quickly become tomorrow’s dusty antique, the information drones provide will ensure this technology has a long shelf life in our industry, making us more effective, safe and Lean builders in the process.