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There’s little question that the United States is in need of a significant infrastructure overhaul. A recent report by the American Society of Civil Engineers assigned U.S. infrastructure an overall grade of C-, with categories such as transit, roads, dams and waterways receiving D-range scores. What this looks like, per the ASCE, is “a water main break every two minutes,” or “178 million trips taken across structurally deficient bridges every day.” However, while the current state of U.S. infrastructure is clear, the significant cost and duration of upgrades are not.

Outside of the bridges, roads, water and rail systems commonly recognized as infrastructure, the United States is also grappling with goals to expand broadband access, build more housing supply and invest in long-term “green energy” improvements. These improvements, beneficial to citizens in the short and long term, require significant time investments and massive local and federal coordination at every level. So for the companies and contractors that typically work on these projects, a key question has arisen: How do we get these sprawling infrastructure assets up to par quickly and cost-effectively?

State of the Construction Industry

According to recent research by McKinsey, a benefit for the construction industry during the pandemic has been the “net acceleration in the use of technology.” It’s no secret that the construction industry has historically lagged behind other labor-intensive industries in digitizing operations and adopting productivity-boosting technologies. However, pandemic-era lockdowns and new safety requirements have forced many companies and contractors to innovate—with impressive results.

New technologies such as drones, robotics, 3D printing, AI and digital twins can go far in making construction projects safer, faster and less cost-prohibitive. This trend toward technological adoption also shows little signs of slowing. For example, a 2021 survey of 600 DroneDeploy customers globally found that in construction, nearly half (45%) of respondents said automation was essential to their business, with 52% reporting that they planned to grow drone operation spend in 2021.

The Power of Drones

Millions of miles of aging roads and countless floors of new housing units aren’t going to inspect themselves—drones can help. Drone-led inspections and mapping can revolutionize large-scale infrastructure projects and provide much-needed compliance benefits for federal projects. With drones and digital twin software, workers and contractors can create comprehensive 3D maps and models of a given jobsite, carefully tracking and documenting site progress. Federally funded projects in particular often introduce a new layer of necessary documentation and compliance among owners, contractors and local offices. With drone models and aerial imagery, all stakeholders can objectively verify and validate work and site progress, keeping projects on track and preventing expensive diversions from site plans.

Drones have also emerged as the “perfect socially distanced worker” in the face of the pandemic, enabling remote collaboration without putting workers at risk. Where field inspection teams, engineers and asset owners might have previously traveled to construction sites in-person, drones can instead provide live-streamed data and full reality capture of ongoing progress. This type of “contactless” analysis has become a critical part of other essential inspection tasks, while detailed 3D documentation has saved workers thousands of hours of travel to asset sites.

On Time, On Budget

If drones can significantly speed up the rate of inspection and mapping tasks on infrastructure work, they can also reduce the final bill.

While the estimates of the average cost-benefits of drones in construction vary, 39% of construction companies surveyed by DroneDeploy listed “reduced costs” as one of the primary benefits of drone usage. Abroad, research done by PwC estimates that construction and manufacturing industries will see net savings of $4.9 billion by 2030 due to growing drone adoption, as well as an overall increase of 3.1% in multifactor productivity.

For large-scale projects as sprawling and ambitious as infrastructure overhauls, time and cost savings can play out to massive benefits for the stakeholders involved. Through the adoption and implementation of drone technologies, necessary upgrades to our national roads, waterways and housing systems can be completed more quickly and efficiently—favorable result at every level.

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