Earlier this year, we launched Skyward Mapping & Modeling, an integrated drone data processing solution that turns customers’ drone images into 3D models and 2D maps right from the Skyward platform. Powered by Pix4D, Skyward Mapping & Modeling enables customers to quickly and easily achieve business-ready insights from their drone data. While many industries can put photogrammetry to good use, few are as well-suited to take immediate advantage of it as the construction industry.

Skyward customer Thompson Turner Construction was one of the first to put Skyward Mapping & Modeling to work on the job site. We recently hosted an ENR webinar with Thompson Turner, where they talked about their drone program, how it came together, and how they’re using Skyward Mapping & Modeling for volumetric stockpile analysis and change tracking today on the job site. Here are a few of their key insights.

Starting a drone program at Thompson Turner Construction

Thompson Turner Construction, a division of Thompson Construction Group, has completed over 175 projects mainly in the Southeast U.S. Headquartered in Sumter, S.C., Thompson Turner received the 2021 STEP Platinum Safety Certification from Associated Builders & Contractors, demonstrating the company’s commitment to safety.

Thompson Turner Construction building at sunset

John Phillips, Contracts Administrator at Thompson Turner, recently began to oversee drone operations at the company. He explained that drones became one part of his role when the company realized the technology could be valuable on the job site.

“Two or three years ago, we saw the presence of drones in our industry, and we saw the potential they had to make some processes more efficient, solve some problems, and even perhaps offer some competitive advantages,” John said. “We had some people in the company interested in drones and motivated to start a program. That’s when we saw a need to put a drone program in place and formalize it.”

Keys to safety: Standard operating procedures and drone pilot training

As Thompson Turner employees began expressing interest in using drones on the job site, the company began to set up drone policies and procedures that would limit liability and minimize risk. Executives appointed a drone committee with members from safety, quality control, risk management, and field operations to establish standard operating procedures that complied with requirements from clients, insurance, the FAA, and other governing bodies.

The committee sought guidance from professionals with military, civilian, and drone aviation experience. After considerable research, the drone committee put together Thompson Turner’s drone handbook, which detailed requirements and procedures for training, operations, management, maintenance, and more.

One key requirement was that all drone pilots on any job site must obtain a Part 107 drone pilot certification. Thompson Turner then provided interested drone pilots with training material and hands-on flying experience. 

“One of the most important components of our training program is safety,” John said. “At Thompson Turner, we have safety baked into our culture. We take measures in our drone program to make sure that our drone operators are prepared and compliant with certification requirements.”

Drone pilot flying drone for Thompson Turner Construction

After a pilot is certified, he or she works with a licensed drone operator for their first few flights to ensure that they are properly trained and comfortable in the field. And Thompson Turner is establishing quarterly recurrent pilot training, as well as feedback sessions to communicate lessons learned and best practices.

Putting drones to work on the construction site

Thompson Turner’s top uses for drones include:

  • Capturing site progress photos and videos for weekly client reports and monthly updates
  • Documenting existing conditions for detailed project proposals
  • Creating marketing material with drone photos and videos, rather than hiring expensive third-party photographers
  • Improving construction site coordination, including placement of materials and trailers

One of Thompson Turner’s newest use cases for drones is taking volumetric stockpile measurements. Ryan Davis, Senior Project Engineer at Thompson Turner Construction, explained how he used a drone to quickly capture the progress of soil stockpile redistribution at the site of Southside Middle School in Florence, S.C.

Drone shot of construction site stockpile

At the beginning of the project, a grading contractor cleared the land and created a soil stockpile that would be redistributed over time. The design team provided a topographical survey detailing roughly how many cubic yards of soil could be used on site, and how much would need to be hauled away. That’s when Skyward released a new feature that could help.

“Right before we started needing to use the soil, Skyward rolled out its new Mapping & Modeling software,” Ryan said. “After attending their webinar explaining how to do quantity takeoffs with drones, I set out to calculate stockpiles of my own.”

Before heading to the site, Ryan used Skyward to plan his flight and check airspace conditions.

“This particular site was not in controlled airspace, so no authorization had to be requested,” Ryan said. “However, I have run into these controlled airspace zones where I’ve needed to fly, and Skyward has made this approval process easy as can be.”

In addition to checking airspace, Ryan used preflight checklists to document procedures, set up an automated survey flight grid using the Skyward InFlight mobile app, and calibrated his settings to best match the particular project.

“A big goal of setting up a drone program is to reduce risk, and planning everything in Skyward helps to do this in a major way,” Ryan said.

Automated drone survey flight in Skyward

Using Skyward to calculate 3D stockpile volume measurements with drones

Ryan then flew his automated mission with a standard quadcopter drone, capturing a series of photos of the job site and its stockpiles. When the flight was finished, he uploaded the photos to Skyward Mapping & Modeling, which used Pix4D’s photogrammetry processing engine to turn the photos into a 3D model and 2D map of the job site.

Once the map and model were created, Ryan used Skyward’s volume measurement tool to quickly calculate the current volume of soil remaining in the stockpile. Ryan admitted that it took a couple of tries to master the technique, but once he figured out the settings he needed, he flew the site every few weeks to keep track of the progress of the dirt redistribution process.

Stockpile volume measurement in Skyward Mapping & Modeling

The traditional method of quantifying large stockpiles was to hire a surveyor to do a topographical survey. A single manual survey could cost upwards of $1,000. By contrast, a drone can obtain similar results in far less time — and surveys can be repeated as often as desired at a fraction of the cost.

“After I upload the data to Skyward, it shoots out an accurate quantity of what’s there,” Ryan said. “At one point we had a topographic survey done just to compare that to Skyward’s platform, and it was within 5–10% of the actual survey. It was very close. So Skyward’s platform is a great resource for those volume measurements.”

As a result of using drone-based volume measurements, Thompson Turner was able to take frequent, accurate evaluations of the soil stockpile from above without disturbing the site below. Ultimately, having a drone onsite at all times allows Thompson Turner to save money and time, and results in improved coordination.

Drone shot of Southside Middle School under construction

Innovation and growth with drones at Thompson Turner

Thompson Turner started with two drone pilots; today they have ten, and counting. Drones aren’t a full time job for any one employee, but they are a focus area for innovation and growth. There’s a lot of excitement around the technology, and Thompson Turner is pushing forward to see what they can accomplish with drones. And Skyward’s software, services, and support will be there to help along the way.

“To me, one of the best things about starting the official drone program and partnering with Skyward has been keeping in the know about what’s going on in the industry,” Ryan said. “And having the ability to do quantity takeoffs from drones, that was a brand new thing for us.”

Interested in getting started with drones at your company? See how Skyward can help you launch a drone program in a matter of weeks with our Program Start Package.

Skyward Drone Program Start Package