Drones have had a big impact for construction and engineering firms looking for leaner, more productive operations. The industry is always finding new ways to capitalize on the improved business insights, cost and time savings, safety benefits, and risk reduction drones may be able to bring.

There’s growing recognition that drone data has the power to do more for construction than just inform building information management (BIM) and site surveys. Aerial intelligence can transform how work gets done, expand what engineering firms can offer their clients, and heighten competitive advantage.

Here are four areas of innovation for drones in the construction and engineering sector

1. Drone automation on construction worksites

Companies can apply for waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would allow fully automated drone operations without humans on site. Today, getting one of these waivers is a significant challenge requiring companies to make a comprehensive case for safety. Still, this opens the door to pre-programmed, pilotless aircraft. Drones like this will automatically launch, perform a task such as a progress video or safety inspection, return to base, deliver the data, and recharge — all on their own.

For example, some drones are being integrated into security Video Management Systems (VMS). When unexpected activity in a secured area of a construction site trips a security camera, the VMS could generate an alarm to a central monitoring office and launch a drone to respond. Security personnel could see the drone feed and evaluate whether they needed to respond themselves, call law enforcement, or clear the alarm as a false positive.

Remote deployments like these will require drones to be connected to wireless networks, especially 5G cellular networks. Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network could provide ultra-low lag communication between the aircraft and base station. It may enable construction companies to attain near real-time analytics during flights using mobile edge computing (MEC) and transmit high volumes of data much more rapidly.

Skyward and Verizon are working toward an autonomous, 5G-connected future for drones. In fact, Skyward obtained a temporary waiver to remotely deploy a drone beyond visual line of sight with no personnel on site as emergency response to a wildfire. It was an important first step toward routine autonomous drone missions.

2. Predictive analytics for building and structure maintenance

Drone technology has made the time-intensive work of inspection and maintenance surveys far more efficient. Now, machine learning is being leveraged to sift through imagery of similar-looking terrain or structures collected by drones to find defects or signs of damage. Artificial intelligence can then be applied to predict and send alerts when a structure needs maintenance. This helps companies correct problems before they become more costly to fix. 

3. Virtual reality for design and marketing

Digital visualizations of projects take building designs off computer workstations and into 360-degree immersive spaces. Brasfield & Gorrie, one of the largest privately held construction firms in the U.S. and a Skyward customer, uses drones to generate virtual reality (VR) simulations of buildings before construction. The technology helps them be more efficient with prefabrication, better able to use their labor force across diverse markets, and more competitive.

The combination of VR and drone technology is creating other new uses. For example, prospective tenants can interact with virtual office and retail environments while still in the design phase. View studies, made of imagery captured by drones flying at the projected altitude of upper floors, help prospects picture what they’re buying before the foundation is even poured.

4. Mesh modeling to help track the past and predict the future

Drones are also moving modeling beyond the desktop by helping decision makers precisely visualize the appearance and impacts of future development on a site or landscape. At its most bleeding edge, this is fully immersive, mixed-reality technology, allowing teams to interact with a design and manipulate it in real time. At a more practical level today, drones are being used to capture engineering-ready 3D models of water treatment plants. A few more examples:

  • A construction project at a San Bernardino, Calif. airport combines drone data with a digital terrain model that tracks the volume of earth removed from the site over time. Project managers use resulting photo-realistic meshes to make volumetric measurements. They also use drone data as a historical record that keeps track of where doors or storm drains were. 
  • Drone data powers digital twin technology, making it possible to track cityscapes over time, get insight into project impacts, and extrapolate forward. Building managers can monitor structure conditions through aerial inspections, and developers can create visualizations showing how future projects will fit.

Drone programs for construction & engineering companies: more growth and innovation ahead

The market for drone services is expected to grow at a 14.5 percent compound annual growth rate between 2023 and 2030. The efficiency gains and insights drones bring to construction and engineering will continue to motivate the industry to do more with drones.

Wireless data transfer is being revolutionized by 5G cellular networks. Locational data is getting more and more precise as Real Time Kinematic (RTK) and Post Processed Kinematic (PPK) techniques become standard in drones. Sophisticated sensors like LiDAR for advanced mapping and modeling will continue to improve site surveys by removing limitations like nighttime and cloud or tree cover.

Drone workflows will keep changing as the industry takes full advantage of these and other innovations, from flights beyond visual line of site and automation to advanced analytics and new types of aircraft.

Skyward Drones in Construction eBook