The Drones Are Coming! The Drones Are Coming! (To The Construction Site)

Image Credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat

Image Credit: Clément Bucco-Lechat

In the very near future, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), will be flying over your construction site if they aren’t already…and that’s a good thing. Drones are expected to have a positive impact on the construction industry in a number of ways such as improving jobsite safety, providing detailed 3-D models of construction sites and performing building inspections. Further development of drone technology could lead to drones performing construction tasks like welding, drilling and assembling modular units to construct buildings.

Current Use of Drones at the Construction Site

Drones can be fitted with digital cameras or HD video cameras in order to track progress at the construction site or to conduct site safety inspections. The drones can operate autonomously using predefined flight paths or be operated manually using a smartphone, tablet or remote control. They can even be equipped with a tablet in order to provide two-way communication with workers in the field. Imagine a safety manager being able to fly a drone across a large construction site to tell a worker he needs to put his hard hat on. Drones have also been equipped with LIDAR equipment, a remote sensing method that uses laser scanners to collect point cloud data, along with GPS and other sensors to produce highly detailed 3-D models of construction sites and existing structures.

Construction firms, universities and drone manufacturers are all performing research, conducting studies and testing the use of drones for construction-related applications. Researchers at Georgia Tech wrapped up a yearlong study earlier this year showing how Georgia DOT could use drones to safely inspect bridges for cracks and other signs of deterioration. Drones have also been used to conduct inspections of joint sealants and roofs quickly and accurately without the added costs and time needed to erect scaffolds.

Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Image Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Skycatch, a San Francisco based startup, is working with construction firms like Bechtel and DPR to track construction progress and provide data collected using drones equipped with cameras and sensors. Brasfield & Gorrie has teamed up with Auburn University to test the use of drones to inspect the exterior of the massive Grandview Medical Center currently under construction in Birmingham, AL. Kansas State University partnered with engineering firm Wilson & Co. to build a drone that was used to map and survey a landfill.

Possible Uses of Construction Drones in the Future

Aside from the current uses already being implemented on construction jobs, drones could play an even bigger role in the future. Flight Assembled Architecture, an exhibition created by architects Gramazio & Kholer and Raffaello d’Andrea, showcased how drones could be used to transport and assemble modular units to build a structure. The project used a team of drones capable of communicating with other and operated semi-autonomously to use 1,500 foam bricks to construct a 20-ft tower. The idea here is that the project could be scaled up using larger drones to place modular units to create a 2,000-ft vertical village with 30,000 inhabitants.

A team from the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab used a team of drones to autonomously assemble a tower-like structure using magnetically connected beams and columns. It’s possible this technology could be used in the future using teams of drones to lift, transport and connect steel beams to construct high-rise structures without the use of cranes.

Is it Legal?

The legality of the commercial use of drones in the US is a bit murky. Back in March a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judge granted a motion to dismiss an order by the FAA that assessed a $10,000 fine to a man who had commercially used a drone to video the University of Virginia campus because he allegedly endangered life and property by operating an aircraft too close to people and buildings. The order of assessment also mentioned that he operated his model aircraft without an FAA pilot certification and received compensation for the flight. The judge ruled that the FAA regulations in question don’t apply to model aircrafts such as drones. The FAA argued that the model aircraft or drone fell into their definition of aircraft and was subject to FAA regulations despite the agency differentiating between the two in the past.

The FAA is planning to appeal the decision and in June published a Notice of Interpretation in the Federal Register regarding Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Section 336 states that the FAA cannot create a rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft as long as it is flown for hobby or recreational use, weighs 55 pounds or less, doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft and isn’t flown within 5 miles of an airport without permission. The is in regards to the requirement that the FAA is required to provide a plan by September 15, 2015 for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace as soon as practicable.

Image Credit: Peter van der Sluijs

Image Credit: Peter van der Sluijs

Somehow the FAA has interpreted this to mean that because they have been tasked with creating rules for the civil use of drones in the future that they can fine people now for commercially using drones despite the fact that there are no regulations or rules prohibiting their use in this way.  The FAA also released safety guidelines for hobby and recreational use of drones in a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”. The last “Do” is “Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment” and the last “Don’t” on the list is “Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.” Is the FAA saying that getting paid to fly a drone is somehow inherently more dangerous than doing it for personal enjoyment? Is it safer to fly a drone for fun rather than for money?

I’m no lawyer and I don’t fully understand the FAA’s reasoning, but my interpretation based on the ruling by the NTSB judge is that commercial use of a drone is completely legal. Just recently a string of lawsuits have been filed against the FAA in regards to their restrictive interpretation of how drones can be operated. There are also a number of companies out there that are using drones commercially for a number of industries so it will be interesting to see if the FAA will try to issue any further fines. Even after all the legality finally gets sorted out I’m sure insurance companies will get involved when it comes to operating drones as part of your construction company.

Note: I’ve come across a couple of articles stating that anyone can use a drone as long as it weighs 4.4 pounds or less, is operated in the line of sight of operator, doesn’t fly higher than 400 ft above ground during daytime hours, within Class G airspace and at least 5 miles away from an airport. This is actually part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and only applies to a government public safety agency. It is not applicable to commercial use, hobby use or any other governmental use except for a public safety agency.

Drone use at construction sites is coming. There’s going to be too much pressure from the private sector and the university community touting the benefits of its commercial use for it not to happen.

What do you think? Are you already using drones for your construction company? Do you plan to use them in the future?

10 Responses to “The Drones Are Coming! The Drones Are Coming! (To The Construction Site)”

  1. David A Kinsella August 28, 2014 at 9:49 AM #

    Certainly the use of drones, in theory, will improve security, safety and productivity. Drones could be used as a deterrent to theft and vandalism by monitoring sites 24/7, night or day. In Addition, to security Drones will improve safety by potentially spotting less than adequate safet protocols before an accident. Finally the work force can be monitored to maintain daily schedules, inefficient actives by workers or subcontractors and eventually be used to control the automation of a construction site.

    The downside is that drones will allow OSHA to see safety violations and levee more fines. In addition to fines, morale in the work place will certainly be lower and the resultant lack of productivity will result in higher construction cost and a disgruntle work force. It would seem that the dollars out of pocket for capital expenditure and the added expense to the consumer will also effect an increase to the cost of the construction.

  2. Adam Cornell August 28, 2014 at 9:52 AM #

    I just got into drone flight and am already utilizing them for capturing video for promotional purposes from angles that were previously impossible to me. I am already considering a new startup using the drones for aerial videography and I am very glad to have come across your article, I would never have thought about the construction industry utilizing drones in a safety or inspection capacity.

    • Kendall Jones August 28, 2014 at 9:57 AM #

      Thanks Adam. I’m sure there are going to be more uses of drones that people come up with in addition to inspections and surveying and I’m sure there will be construction companies that will outsource this type of work instead of doing it in-house. Definitely something to look into if you are starting up a business.

  3. Bob Sechler August 28, 2014 at 10:41 AM #

    If OSHA ever decides to use them, the construction industry and probably many other businesses will be doomed.

  4. Kresi August 28, 2014 at 12:49 PM #

    Hi Adam,
    I am just wondering, why you are showing only toys?!
    This is a serious business and companies like AscTec with the Falcon8 has got the perfect solution.
    Showing a DJI Phantom or worse the ArDrone is for many people a sign, that everybody can start with a toy a business. That is not true. You need a lot of skills and knowledge to fly in the construction
    industry. Please update your post 😉

    • Kendall Jones August 28, 2014 at 1:05 PM #

      The photos used were just for reference although I do know of a construction company that is using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ for surveying. I’ve also seen an ArDrone 2.0 that was used with Autodesk 123D to create a 3D surface map.

  5. Craig Newhouse August 28, 2014 at 4:49 PM #

    I’ve been flying Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for over 2 years now with my own startup business called Hovercams, and have provided wonderful photos of construction sites (to check contractors work), campuses, natural areas, private residences, stadiums, schools, and many other facilities. These photos have IMPROVED the ability of architects, landscape contractors, facility administrators, and many more to PROMOTE their services to others. This is free enterprise at it’s best: helping other businesses succeed so everyone is successful in commerce as it should be here in America. I do this safely and confidently that “no FAA rules” really means just that. The FAA can say all they want, but I completely agree that they have NOT followed their own rule-making process, and are trying to enforce a lot of hot air so-to-speak.

    • Kendall Jones August 28, 2014 at 4:56 PM #

      Thanks for the comment Craig. I do find it odd that, to my knowledge, the FAA has only issued the one fine which was struck down by an NTSB judge despite the fact that there are numerous companies advertising drone photography/video services. If they truly believed what they are saying about it being illegal for commercial use I would think they would have issued a lot more fines by now.

  6. Kevin Earley August 29, 2014 at 8:48 AM #

    I’ve been flying a quadcopter and capturing video and photos from construction sites and finished projects as a hobby. It is great new technology that has untapped potential for marketing services and documenting construction activity. Recent FAA rules is another example of government over-reach in attempt to expand the nanny state under the guise of safety. The focus on “commercial” use defies common sense. Commercial efforts are likely more safe than hobbyist simply due to capitalism (if I crash or do property damage nobody will hire me) and need to maintain a viable business (insurance, maintenance, etc.). The use of the word “drone” – a military term along with the media sensationalizing rare close encounters lead citizens to worry but this is simply a new way to photograph/video. I once mused with an overly concerned reporter that if the automobile was invented on his watch, cars would be banned for public use and only used by government officials.

    • Kendall Jones August 29, 2014 at 9:16 AM #

      Thanks for the comment Kevin. I think there a lot of potential uses for drones for commercial application, construction industry included, that have yet to be explored. Like Amazon, Google just announced yesterday that they have been working on using drones for delivery of consumer goods. The FAA’s current stance on commercial use seems to stem from the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that specifically exempts future rulemaking on hobby drones of a certain size. I agree that companies using it for reputable business purposes will take a lot more precautions in terms of safety compared to your average Joe flying one around the neighborhood. Funny you mentioned a concerned reporter since it seems like a good number of new agencies are wanting to use them for news coverage.

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