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Commercial drones are just beginning to take off in the United States. In most industries, early adopters are still exploring use cases with the idea of leveraging a competitive advantage next year. Even Amazon, which has famously evangelized package delivery, still must overcome major regulatory and technological hurdles before it can deliver goods via aerial robots. 

However, construction and engineering firms are leaps and bounds ahead of similarly sized companies in other industries. Some large firms already employ dozens of full-time flight crews to maximize drone data at every step of the process, from design and building to marketing and ongoing inspections. Construction firms of all sizes have been quick to identify dozens of use cases that have made old processes faster, cheaper, safer and simpler—as well as create entirely new revenue streams.  

Existing Uses
The planning, surveying, architecture and engineering that go into shaping what eventually becomes a building all require good data. Using drones to capture images of the site as part of an initial survey is only the beginning of the value for a construction firm. 

By feeding raw sensor data into software like Skycatch, DroneDeploy or InfraWorks, designers create 3-D models and maps that can be packaged and sold under various pricing structures. This shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for surveying, but rather as another tool in the surveyor’s arsenal. 

Drones are becoming an essential component of virtual design and construction (VDC), giving architects and engineers new and efficient ways to visualize and analyze structural requirements literally from the ground up. Drones can be used to measure how much cut and fill a site will need in order to make the ground level and sound enough to build on.

Designers also are using drone-obtained cloud points to create BIM models and to generate a 3-D rendering of a site with a layer for each stage of building in order to show the client how the project will progress and help identify potential problems. 

These tasks traditionally have required a plane, crane or helicopter, as well as a staff of data scientists. Drones offer these services at a more competitive rate and with the added bonus of gathering the data safely. 

In the Field
Recently, Hensel Phelps used drones to inspect the metal flashing that holds glass on the exterior of a high-rise building in downtown Denver. 

“By using drones to fly the exterior of the building, we were able to verify that we had the proper quantity and that everything was correct,” says Hensel Phelps VDC Manager Richard Lopez. “Traditionally, we’ve had to put a person on a lift, which is not without risk, and send the lift around the perimeter of the building, which is a time-consuming process.” 

As a bonus, a supervisor or engineer on the ground can receive HD footage in real time. 

Following are a few other use cases for drones on the construction site and for ongoing inspections.
  • Time lapse: Use drones to take weekly images of the structure and stitch them together into a time-lapse video. This can help coordinate logistics among the many parties involved, while also providing progress updates to remote stakeholders. Many commercial clients are willing to pay for an easier way to visualize the progress on a new building.
  • Forward looking infrared (FLIR): Drones equipped with FLIR sensors can be used to detect heat in faulty electrical joints, as well as energy loss or consumption or insulation defects as part of installing and inspecting HVAC.
  • Thermal imaging: With the ability to see a live thermographic image of a structure, an inspector can search for unusual differences in heat. This makes studying energy efficiency and checking for problems like water leakage and damaged insulation much simpler. 
Though construction companies have been using thermal imaging for several years, it has only recently become possible to attach a thermal sensor to a drone. The ability to take an aerial heat image, without chartering a helicopter or plane, lowers costs and may provide more scheduling flexibility. 

Back at the Office
Construction firms invest in drones for the same reason they invest in welders and cranes: to do essential, boots-on-the-ground tasks as safely and efficiently as possible. But unlike cranes and welders, drones also provide value to executive and marketing teams.

In terms of jobsite monitoring, drones can give executives insight to cut down on waste and improve the security of their projects. In the United States today, flying a drone over people is not allowed without a permit, which can pose a challenge to daytime flights on active jobsites. Keep in mind that the Federal Aviation Administration works with companies that are willing to demonstrate standard operating procedures and risk-mitigating processes. 

On the marketing side, aerial photography and video for marketing residential and commercial real estate is one of the best known applications for drones today. Rather than hiring a crane or helicopter, many firms are choosing to spend far less by hiring a drone with a high-quality camera and a capable pilot. The results speak for themselves. A drone can achieve unusual angles, capture the aerial perspective and get results that otherwise would be impractical or impossible. This creates a competitive advantage when it comes to promoting a firm’s projects and services.

Drones can even help sell tenants on office space before it exists. A drone can take photos showing what the view will look like from any given office—even before the tower is built. 

Scaling Up
Because drones, pilots, sensors and software are an investment, companies should identify one or two use cases upfront and pilot a program. Be sure to rigorously follow standard operating procedures and collect metrics for a defined period of time. That way, the firm will be able to make the case to its executive team and demonstrate value to internal colleagues. 

But don’t stop there. Drones only provide value when they’re up in the air, so once a company has made the initial investment, it’s worth it to explore as many drone applications as possible to maximize the investment. Think of it as an opportunity to inspire field and office staff to innovate processes and services along the way. 

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