The Present and the Future of Construction

Aerial Drones

When commercial drones first hit the market, many imagined the dawn of a futuristic city with hundreds of drones whizzing overhead as commercial vehicles delivering pizzas or as personal toys to record our lives or run errands. Few imagined construction workers leading the forefront of their innovation, yet in 2019, one of the largest industries influencing drone hardware and software is construction.

The earliest adopters of drone technology were construction firms and similar industries with heavy outdoor labour and mapping needs such as mining. We are using more machines to do more of the jobs that are dangerous for humans, as well as provide highly reliable data such as maps, measurements, and calculations. Whether a company currently uses them or not, drones will one day become as common as cranes and ladders.

Think of a drone as a mobile sensor machine that can gather data at faster rates and of higher complexity than traditional surveyors. A drone can be outfitted with a camera or thermal detector and can begin delivering real-time information within seconds.

Drones are able to access areas that are difficult to reach: high, through narrow passages, across rivers, or under bridges. A flight can capture data faster and more safely than sending employees up ladders, on boats, or strapped into harnesses.

Unlike other technologies, drones are not taking away jobs or displacing workers. On the contrary, they are increasing the length of employment for many veteran workers who have a well-trained eye for problem-solving and whose ability to survey part of a site is unparalleled, but whose body may not be able to handle going up and down ladders on a worksite all day.

While working in an office, they can survey multiple sites and use their vast experience to give opinions on all of them without having to sacrifice their health and safety. Workers on site who need to scan of a roof or other high object can also do so quickly and safely. More companies are training these workers to operate and interpret drone information, whether from the base of a construction site or in an air-conditioned office miles away.

The power of drones, however, is not in their data collection but in the processing of that data. Software companies are finding ways to turn that information into useful maps and reports, and businesses that can take advantage of that software will be the ones that dominate over the next five to ten years.

By far, the most common use of drone technology is the creation of incredibly detailed maps of work sites. In minutes or hours, a manual-controlled or auto-piloted drone can fly by and create high-resolution, comprehensive two-dimensional and three-dimensional (2D and 3D) images.

Drones perform inspections without disrupting workflow, and the data is used to create progress maps that can be sent to the cloud to be accessed by head office. Head office can watch the videos or scroll through a map to see what work has or has not been completed. Even disputes between contractors and subcontractors are easily settled with a quick pass from a drone, keeping conversations factual.

An off-the-shelf amateur drone, such as the Phantom 4 by DJI, which retails for around USD 1,500, can provide a bird’s-eye view of a worksite and has zoom capabilities to see clear images as small as one to five centimetres. Companies have the power to analyze a structure from all sides and zoom in with great precision to detect cracks, rusting, or discoloration of an object from many angles.

Thermal mapping is also amazingly easy with drones. Pop a thermal camera into a drone and have it create a temperature map to highlight cracks and heat leaks throughout any structure. This data can easily be shared with clients and is incredibly useful for making pitches for installing storm windows or other long-term cost-saving measures.

Once maps are completed, it is easy to tag and write on top of maps to keep a visual list of key points that need to be conveyed. Manipulating a 3D map of a site is a great way to express a vision to clients, especially for renovations and retrofits. The maps that are produced will wow customers and can be a great morale boost to employees.

Some firms have taken to doing a fly-by every week and sharing 2D bird’s-eye view images with employees. Workers can see progress and get a sense of the overall cohesion of a project.

The same ability to create accurate 2D and 3D maps produces incredibly precise surface area and volumetric measurements. Using software, staff can click on a pile of sand or rubble and instantly get data about surface area and volume. Companies can use this data to make accurate decisions regarding deliveries of stockpiles to or from the worksite.

Volumetric measurements also help with those doing groundwork. A drone’s report can detect uneven ground, concrete overpours, and even identify misplaced underground utilities. Many companies are using drones daily or weekly to make minute adjustments to production schedules that can save lots of money over the long term.

What is more exciting is that the technology is going one step further and is reporting what has been finished without having to watch a video or scroll through a map. Hesam Hamledari, a Ph.D. student from Stanford University, is using image recognition to train drones to identify the difference between a wall with studs, one with drywall, and one with drywall and installed outlets.

This is incredibly useful for companies that use building information modelling (BIM) mapping. BIM mapping helps firms with planning and is basically a progress report that uses a computer-generated 3D map to show the construction steps to complete a project. Usually, BIM maps are updated manually, but Hamledari’s work will pave the way for drones providing information used to automatically update BIM maps, something that would be incredibly useful for large building projects. Eventually, the technology will be able to account for just about anything, including trim or paint colour.

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have found a way to use two drones and Wi-Fi signals to ‘see-through’ walls. One drone sends Wi-Fi signals, while the other flies around and measures their intensity. High signal readings mean more air space, low signal readings mean an object or many objects are in the way. While this research is in its infancy, it is just a matter of time before these techniques can become common practice on the worksite.

Drones are not only good at taking photos but are also capable of delivering light objects. Amazon has requested approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for delivery drones.

For many years, universities and research and development departments have even been having drones complete lightweight assembly. Depending on the size of the drone, it should be able to deliver tools, nails, screws, or other lightweight objects to workers, especially those already halfway up a building or working on scaffolding.

Companies that are committed to safety are using drones to take bird’s-eye video recordings of staff movements during times of heavy traffic such as at lunch or the end of the work-day. This monitors how machines and people are moving around the site, and the aerial view is then used to examine potential safety risks. Steps can be taken to reroute how staff walk around on a site or to reorganize the placement of material stockpiles or equipment.

Software companies can compile data from drones, and the more data, the better the software becomes. In other words, the more companies that use drones and collect data, the more the overall industry will improve. The future will not be about keeping trade secrets within a particular company, but about sharing the knowledge with large software companies that will help to create a best practices model that will benefit both small and large companies.

The drones of today, along with project management software, are laying the groundwork for a future workforce beyond imagination. In our lifetimes, buildings will become more automated, and to get there, the robots of tomorrow will need to be equipped with brains that can ‘see’ a site and work accordingly. Drones may be instructing other robots in assembly or demolition.

It is no longer a surprise to see fully-automated car assembly, so why not a building? This will be simply a matter of scaling.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

November 14, 2019, 11:00 AM EST