Cyberhawk says it has seen an uptick in the use of such drones in the construction industry. Their low cost and ease of handling has made work more efficient for the engineers, architects and builders across the UK.
“What would have happened traditionally is the surveyor would have gone to the remote location with their GPS equipment and they would walk 20 metres, stop, put the staff in the ground, press a button to measure the height and location of the land, and go up and down the landscape in a grid pattern,” says Fleming. “Now, rather than them spending two weeks traipsing all over that land, we can fly a drone over instead and create a photorealistic model.”
Advances such as these are likely to have major implications for the cost of building work. As it stands, around 80 per cent of construction projects run over schedule, and 20 per cent are over budget.
According to figures from PricewaterhouseCoopers, drones could save the UK construction industry £3.5 billion (NZ$6.84 billion) by 2030, making surveying 400 times faster and allowing data from the sites to be shared with stakeholders with ease.
A large part of the potential savings boil down to drones’ capacity to map large areas of land, or buildings themselves. Fairhurst Estates, for example, a chartered surveying company which started using drones more than four years ago, says they allowed it to scale buildings without actually having to get on top of them.
“It was a bit random when we decided to get a licence,” Jonathan Hyde, a surveyor at the company, says. “At the time, most of the people were using drones for photography whereas we wanted to use them to be able to access buildings.”
Historically, for large properties, Fairhurst would have had to either scaffold the place or use a cherry picker – an access platform – to be able to see its condition. But, with a drone, it “basically allowed us to see all the levels of the building from ground level,” Hyde says.
Aside from making the whole surveying process significantly less time consuming, advocates say there is another major benefit: safety.
“These are places where if something goes wrong, you might die. It’s as simple as that,” Cyberhawk’s Fleming says. By putting drones in places where workers would previously have had to go, companies can “keep people out of very dangerous environments”.
In the future, drones could also be used to put together buildings. ETH Zürich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, for instance, has pioneered research on the potential of drones to build towers. In one study, the researchers created a 20ft tall tower constructed from 1,500 “bricks” using a fleet of drones.
With these benefits, you would think construction companies would be piling into the drone space, investing in their own products, deploying them across their sites.
But, of course, it isn’t as simple as that – there are significant barriers to entry. For one thing, regulation in the space is increasingly difficult to navigate.
From the beginning of December, drone users have been at risk of facing £1,000 in fines if they fly their device without passing an online theory test or registering as an operator.
For an industry where margins are already painfully tight, there are some concerns that this will put smaller businesses off investing. Even now, when it appears companies are starting to adopt drones, “the hype is greater than the numbers on the ground,” says Tony Shooter, who chairs COMIT Projects’s drone community, whose members include Balfour Beatty, Kier and Costain.
On paper, there are 5,500 companies registered at the CAA to fly drones commercially, but the majority are thought to have between one and five employees.
The biggest Tier One construction companies, meanwhile, “have less than 20 in-house pilots,” Shooter says.
Try to convince smaller businesses to spend, and they may be less than receptive. In construction, you’re looking at 2 per cent profit, Shooter says. “You think of all the things that can go wrong at a construction project – you only have to watch Grand Designs one week and you can see the amount of variables you have to take on board is very difficult.
“It’s easy to fall back on tried and tested methodologies. If you’re an early adopter, you get burnt and there isn’t enough money there to do that.”
There are added risks as well; accidents do happen. Filings from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch last year revealed one drone owner flew his aircraft into a crane “because of a lack of perspective” and, speaking to The Telegraph, a roof specialist, who had advertised his drone services through online listings, said his had “crashed and I didn’t buy another one”.
With all these factors, there is the possibility that building companies may be put off adopting the technology, even with all the added benefits down the line. After all, much of their work is done on a project-by-project basis, making the initial costs hard to swallow, and flying a drone comes with risk.
One way or another, though, the construction industry may not be able to hold off investing in technology for too much longer. If history is anything to go by, companies which resist digitisation will soon be replaced by others which use technology to deliver projects on time and on budget.
The use of drones in construction may be a cottage industry now – but chances are it’s just a matter of time until it takes off.
– Telegraph Media Group at https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12297217