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Are drones quietly transforming the construction sector?

Drones are becoming a more widely used tool in the construction industry. To those of us who have been working in this sector for a substantial amount of time, it can feel like drones have suddenly appeared on the scene. But the reality is that drone usage has been with us for several years now.

Since 2015, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) usage in industry has grown dramatically. And Gartner has forecast that the global drone market (including personal drones) will grow to more than $11.2 billion by 2020.

Looking at drone use in construction, this technology is particularly useful for monitoring site progress and tracking material quantities.

In terms of site progress, drones can help by taking photographs and creating maps and 3D models to show what has happened on a construction site so far.

They are also used to assist in site modelling, allowing a better understanding of the topology of a site before building begins. The information that drones collect can be brought into BIM software and used as a basis for planning.

Other industrial uses for drones include inspecting wind turbines – usually using images and video – and mapping mining sites.

According to 3DR, who make Site Scan – a drone aerial analytics software platform – drone usage can help survey companies complete their work up to six times faster. They cite the example of a company who would usually take around 18 days to survey a 90-acre site, whereas by using a drone along with Site Scan software, they were able to cut this process down to 3 days.

As well as potentially making operations more cost-effective and efficient, drones can also help to improve safety. For example, instead of having workers climbing stockpiles, with the potential for slips, falls and injury, stock information can be collected via drone.

As well as being used in routine construction operations, drones can also be useful in emergency situations. At least two UAVs were reportedly used during the Notre Dame cathedral fire back in April of this year.

The drones performed a reconnaissance over the burning structure, meaning that fire fighters could see the intensity of the fire and monitor where it was spreading in real time.

Interestingly, UAV use is strictly prohibited in Paris, and according to the Hackaday website, the geofencing functions built into the drone models used would normally have stopped them from flying over the cathedral. They say, “DJI [the drone manufacturer] actually has a system in place where operators can request these limitations be lifted temporarily, which allowed the manufacturer to work quickly with the French authorities to get the UAVs airborne.”

Drones were used again after the fire to assess the damage and to allow engineers to determine whether it was safe to enter the cathedral. And this footage will also help forensic engineers and the rebuild team as they plan the restoration project.

While drones are clearly making an important impact, the Paris ‘no fly zone’ does highlight one of the limitations of drones, which is that it is not always straightforward to use them.

You can’t go out and buy a drone and start flying it immediately in any location. There are rules and regulations around piloting a drone, and you need to have a licence.

But that does not mean that the use of UAVs won’t continue to grow. I have not had a need for drones on one of my projects as yet, but a number of my contacts have, and it may be something I have a need for in the future.

Meanwhile, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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