Coronavirus Pandemic Lifts Drones Higher In The Construction Chain Of Command
Construction drones are at times expensive, difficult to operate and hard to maneuver without solid training, but the coronavirus has within a matter of months transformed these unmanned aerial vehicles from emerging tech tools to front-line workers on U.S. construction sites.
"Six months of coronavirus is going to result in, say, three years of innovation in the construction industry," Associated General Contractors of America President of Public Affairs Brian Turmail said.
There are 1.68 million drones registered in the U.S., 487,000 of which are for commercial use, and 190,488 certified drone pilots, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
Texas Drone Co. President Jared Janacek said his drone firm's construction jobs have increased 200% year-over-year. But it isn't just the coronavirus that's pushing drone service requests higher.
"From our standpoint, we have seen steady increases in drone adoption in construction for quite some time," Janacek said.
The FAA granted exemptions in 2016 for companies in new industries, including construction, to use drones. That was hailed as a game-changer for multiple industries, and Goldman Sachs Research estimated at the time that the civil government and commercial drone market together would create a $100B opportunity between 2016 and 2020. It estimated $13B of that would come from commercial and civil use.
Those predictions ended up being far too optimistic — drones are a $22.5B industry in 2020, according to DroneII.com — and CRE experts told Bisnow last year the technology hadn't yet revolutionized commercial real estate. There was a period of initial skepticism that resulted from cost concerns and fears over FAA regulations, Sundt Construction engineers said.
Though drones themselves are relatively inexpensive, often less than $2K apiece, the ancillary equipment and cost of training and paying an employee to fly one can end up upward of $22K, according to a 2018 analysis by the Certified Training Institute.
The cost of not operating drones correctly is where the largest financial risk lies. Failure to follow FAA regulatory rules governing the vehicles can result in fines or penalties ranging from $27K to $250K depending on the severity of the breach, according to the FAA.
Still, drone usage at construction sites has grown steadily over the past few years, and today, drones are deployed on construction sites to document work already in progress from the safety of remote locations and can handle an assortment of other tactical and observational tasks that previously required on-site, in-person visits.
Drones have the ability to assist in the creation of topographical maps, while handling inspections, measurements and thermal studies to document leaks in a project's facade.
"There are a ton of uses [for drones], none of which are new since the coronavirus [outbreak], but many of which are being accelerated because the virus has forced more people to work from home as opposed to from an office or a job site," Turmail said.
Sundt Construction virtual construction technician Dean Miller said his firm already uses drones consistently on various job sites.
"We use them for project updates that we can send to our owners and our team just to show how far along we have gotten," Miller said.
When a property is large enough and has enough interior space for maneuverability, construction firms fly drones directly into a project's interior to document the status of their work. They then share the imagery with construction principals and stakeholders who are working remotely.
Construction firm McCarthy did just that when building out the 450K SF Museum of Fine Arts in Houston during the pandemic. The project has active players stationed all over the world, with some as far away as Germany, McCarthy Senior VDC/BIM Engineer Nathan Atkins said.
"With all of these travel restrictions in place, we really could not get them to the job site," Atkins said. "And our typical process for closing down the job site is you will have the design team walking the job site [with their] punch lists and making sure they can put their stamp of approval on it before handing it off to the owner."
Instead of having principals walking the Houston project, drone technology took a more active role by visually taking key players through the museum to keep the construction processes moving during the close-out of the project.
Engineers with Sundt Construction also have witnessed a heavier reliance on drones and other high-tech tools during the pandemic. The group said interior drone tours are still limited to wide-open spaces like gyms, but the firm did manage to distribute internal images of a project during the pandemic with the help of drones combined with a handheld, 360-degree camera.
"We have a technology client, and they cannot come to the state where we are building their project due to COVID restrictions, and they are at what we call the punch list phase where they need to be walking our facility," Senior Virtual Construction Engineer Eric Cylwik said.
Using a combination of a drone and a 360-degree camera, Sundt was able to keep remote stakeholders apprised of the project's entire progress without having them visit the site.
Discussion in the construction industry of an increase in drone usage to keep projects on schedule after the pandemic prompted AGC of America to include a specific question about drone operations in an upcoming construction industry survey.
"What we are asking about is how are firms using technology to address the fact that they have large portions of the workforce working from home," Turmail said.
The survey also is asking about what devices firms used during the pandemic to keep projects moving.
The benefit of the virus is it serves as an example of what these flying devices are truly capable of during times of market turmoil and rapid change.
"Traditionally the construction industry is hesitant, but as soon as you show the power of the data they can get through [drones and technology], they are on board pretty quickly," Sundt Senior Virtual Construction Engineer Mark Epstein said.