Why Your SMB Should Use Drones in Construction

By: on September 28, 2017

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the drone industry is growing rapidly. Since 2015, we’ve seen the application of drones grow outside of military ops and become so commonplace that we barely glance up when one flies overhead at the local park or outdoor concert.

(Source: Giphy.com)

Now, sales for remote controlled aerial devices (both commercial and personal) are expected to surpass $12 billion in 2021, according to BI Intelligence—up from $8.5 billion in 2016.

One industry in particular that has been quick to adopt drones for commercial use is construction. And it’s not hard to see why…

Drones can perform construction tasks usually done by humans more quickly, more accurately and with less equipment. This leads to huge savings in time and money, not to mention improved safety on job sites.

But while research and advisory firm, Gartner, notes that drones are becoming a vital tool for enterprises (see next section), the question remains whether or not this technology is relevant for small construction firms.

In this report, we’ll show how drones can be used by small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and enterprises alike, making drone technology a smart investment for small firms looking to gain a competitive advantage.

How Are Drones Used In Construction?

Currently, there are several ways that drones are being used in construction, including:

  • Electronic distance measurement
  • High resolution aerial images and GPS
  • Light detection and ranging (lidar)
  • Collector of Internet of things (IoT) data and as an IoT endpoint

Examples of what these use cases look like in real life include:

Jobsite mapping: Pre-construction topographic surveys can lead to more accurate project estimates.

Terrain modeling: High resolution aerial images and GPS data can improve earthwork volume tracking/quantity takeoffs.

Progress tracking: During construction, topographic surveys can monitor progress, keeping construction crews and clients on the same page. It can also help detect problems before they lead to major rework.

Site surveillance and security: Monitor jobsites and equipment, especially for high-risk work environments, e.g., dealing with contamination or potential for contamination.

1. Topographic map of a construction site
2. Overview of a construction site, from a drone
(Images provided by Uplift Data Partners)

Using drones in these ways can help contractors win more jobs, increase efficiency (by saving time and money), limit project delays, mitigate risks and improve the safety of job sites and their teams.

Because of their many uses and myriad of benefits, Gartner reports that enterprises are adopting drones with great frequency.

“Drones continue to gain more acceptance in enterprise, and some companies already have fleets of drones being deployed for industrial inspection, surveillance, mapping and other applications.”

Source: Gerald Van Hoy and Brady Wang in “Predicts 2017: Drones(full report available to Gartner clients)

Of course, most SMBs can’t afford “fleets of drones,” but that doesn’t mean they’re unable to benefit from this technology. In the next section, we’ll look at how SMBs can best leverage drone technology to improve their business.

How Can SMBs Leverage Drone Technology?

First, let’s take a look at how Gartner breaks down “personal” and “commercial” drones in their report “Forecast: Personal and Commercial Drones, Worldwide 2016(full report available to Gartner clients):

Uses for Drone Technology

Personal/consumer drones:
Commercial drones:
• Marketed to consumers

• Fly short distances and time, i.e., less than 500 meters and up to one hour

• Maximum flight height limited to approximately 500 meters

• Features include built-in or add-on camera, GPS, collision avoidance, wireless connectivity, inertial measurement unit (IMU) and an internal processor

• Product examples include DJI’s Phantom and Inspire series and Parrot’s Bebop series
• Marketed to businesses, can be specialized for industrial segments or for a certain function (e.g., delivery or industrial inspection)

• Higher payload and longer flight times than personal drones

Redundant sensors and flight controllers

• Redundant vital systems

• Capable of connecting to cellular network via built-in communications module

• Product examples include Yamaha’s RMAX and the Kespry Drone 2.0

It’s important to understand the specifications for personal and commercial drones for two reasons:

  1. FAA regulations apply to personal drones
  2. Personal drones are increasingly being used for commercial purposes

The application of personal drones for commercial purposes—including surveillance, 3D mapping and modeling—is what makes this technology feasible for SMBs and how small construction firms should look to leverage it.

Of course, there are still some hoops to jump through, such as the FAA regulations cited above, but this blurring of the line between personal drones and commercial purposes puts this technology squarely into the hands of small construction firms, and makes the use of drones in construction a smart investment for SMBs.

To use a drone for any of the construction purposes cited in the first section, e.g., site mapping and terrain modeling, requires the following:

FAA licensed pilot operating a drone at a construction site (image provided by Uplift Data Partners)

As such, SMBs looking to implement drone technology can do so via the following:

  • Outsource drone services to a service provider. The service provider owns the drone, pilots the drone and then supplies the firm with the files, data and analysis compiled from the flight. For example, Uplift Data Partners (currently working on integrations with leading construction software vendors).
  • Own your own drone and rent a licensed pilot using drone software compatible with your construction management system. For example, DroneDeploy (integrates with Autodesk).
  • Own your own drone and employ a licensed pilot in-house (or use an autonomous flight plan) and purchase drone software compatible with your construction management system. For example, Botlink (integrates with Procore).

When Should SMBs Start To Use Drones in Construction?

The short answer? Immediately. This technology is affordable, valuable and only improving over time. There are several ways of getting drones involved in your site right away:

  • With Uplift’s end-to-end service model, (i.e., initial consultation to delivery of processed data and analytics), missions start as low as $350. Uplift offers custom pricing tailored to the flight-specific needs of their customers. Services can be purchased on a subscription basis or for single missions. Contact Uplift directly for a quote.
  • Botlink is sold via subscription licensing, in a tiered pricing model. Plans listed on their website start with a free flight control app (customers use their own drone, which requires a licensed pilot or autonomous drone), and packages scale as features and services are added. For example, adding map processing, increasing the photo limit and improving map resolution increases your monthly cost.
  • DroneDeploy is also sold via subscription license in a tiered pricing model (geared toward mapping professionals, i.e., licensed pilots who own their own drone). Plans listed on their website start with a free base model (includes a limited number of maps plus 3D processing as well as photos per map), and packages scale as users add advanced capabilities such as volumetric calculations, data exports etc.

SMBs can and should ask vendors to build out or provide them with proof-of-purchase use-cases to show them how drone technology and insights can impact their operations, and then choose the implementation method that best suites their needs.

Case Studies Provided by Uplift Data Partners

 OUR RECOMMENDATION:  SMBs will likely see the most return on their investment by outsourcing drone services. That way, they can benefit from drone technology insights, without having to deal with the overhead for hardware, software, FAA regulations and analyzing the drone data themselves.

Q & A: How One Service Provider Delivers Drone Technology

We spoke with Uplift Data Partners to better understand their service model and how SMBs might benefit from implementing drone technology in this way.

The following Q&A is an excerpt from our conversation with Uplift’s V.P. of Business Development and Sales, Jamail Carter:

Q: How can drone technology benefit small construction firms? What are the steps involved if an SMB wants to start using drones in construction?

J.C.: Benefiting from drone data requires many steps, i.e., pilot certification, equipment purchase and practice, risk management, comprehensive data processing, integrating new software, tracking and training, and more.

At Uplift, we’ve designed our drone aviation program to provide a full-scale drone service to our clients nationwide:

  • Uplift works with construction teams to determine site boundaries and any specific areas they want captured, then we create flight plans to ensure those areas are within the mission plan
  • Once our pilot completes the mission, they upload the data on our proprietary platform
  • Then our in-house data team processes the images and we deliver our data analysis directly to the client

Construction companies get exactly what they desire: topographic maps, site layout checks/pre-conditions, quantity tracking, cut and fill reports, linework overlays, inspection, volume measurements, thermal imaging and more—without requiring in-house hardware, software and pilots.

Key Takeaway: SMBs can implement drone technology in several ways, including outsourcing services to a third-party provider (who, like Uplift, would handle the entire process from consultation to delivery of drone data and analysis), or, can purchase the hardware and software themselves and either employ or rent a licensed pilot.

Q: Do construction firms need certain software to process drone data?

J.C.: They do not need any specialty software to use and review [Uplift] deliverables. We give them data that doesn’t require CAD software, although some firms request the raw drone data to manipulate in their own CAD software. We provide our deliverables in various formats specific to a client’s request. The most common formats requested by our clients are .pdf, .las and .dxf, although we can accommodate many more.

Our deliverables and data analysis help industry leaders prevent rework, reduce waste, increase safety, and boost margins, all for peak project performance.

Key Takeaway: If firms are not outsourcing the entire drone service and instead choose to use their own hardware, they’ll require speciality software to help them process the data collected during the flight into actionable insights.

Q: How can outsourcing drone services benefit SMBs?

J.C.: Uplift’s model scales to clients needs. Our typical clients are general contractors and specialty contractors. They can leverage our services per project on a recurring basis (subscription), or for single use.

Most of our clients use our services on a recurring basis from pre-construction through project closeout in order to take full advantage of our data and media deliverables. Although, we also work with contractors before they win work. Our pilots can fly a project site to capture data and contractors can differentiate their proposals by providing much more accurate bids.

Key Takeaway: SMBs who choose to implement drone technology using a service provider can sidestep the requirement of needing specialized tools. If they choose to implement drone technology via another method, they’ll need to deal with the overhead from the hardware, software and FAA licensed pilot.

Next Steps

As noted above, drone technology is an incredibly valuable tool for construction companies of all size. The application of personal drones for commercial purposes has revolutionized the industry and SMBs looking to gain a professional edge should take advantage of that.

If you’re interested in implemented drone technology at your firm, here are a few next steps you can take:

  • Email me at eileen@softwareadvice.com. I’m available to answer any questions you might have about the technology discussed in this article and can connect you with our construction advisor manager if you’d like to discuss construction systems and drone software integration.
  • Call our advisors directly at (855) 998-8505. Get a one-on-one consultation with our dedicated advisor team. They work with hundreds of vendors and can help you evaluate your service requirements and match you with a shortlist of products that meet your needs.

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