In my discussions with big companies about their drone operations, a few things always come up: faster turnaround time, far lower aircraft expenses, and reductions in manpower costs. These are the most obvious examples of the value UAS brings to businesses, for example:
- A hydrogeologist serving the mining industry cut the time needed to survey and process elevation data for a 1,400-acre quarry from 20 hours to two.
- Construction giant Hensel Phelps was using manned helicopter flights at $14K to $20K per flight to capture aerial video of their projects. Now they’re using UAVs at a fraction of the cost.
- An engineering consulting firm has leveraged drones for transmission line construction planning, wildlife inventories and environmental compliance, reducing impacts on sensitive lands along with the number of field workers needed.
But there are plenty of other benefits that many companies overlook and that, to my mind, should definitely be part of a proof of concept for drone adoption or expansion. Here are five not-as-obvious areas of value that your chief safety officer, director of field services, or site supervisors will want to know about.
Improved Worker Safety
There were 991 total deaths in private industry construction in 2016. The leading causes? Falls (39%), struck by object (9%), electrocution (8%), and caught-in/between (7%). These Fatal Four claimed 631 workers’ lives.
Unmanned systems make operations safer by reducing worker exposure to the many hazards field workers face: scaffolding and ladders; toxics during ash pond or smokestack inspections; wiring and other electrical equipment; washed-out access roads beneath high-tension power lines; water hazards during dam and reservoir inspections—even criminal activity, like illegal drug grows in remote pipeline inspection areas. Utilities and energy companies are finding drones faster, cheaper, and safer for many tower or pole inspections than having the field force climb or use a bucket truck, for example.
Fewer Workers’ Comp Claims
OSHA estimates that employers pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers’ compensation costs alone (workers’ compensation payments, medical expenses, legal services). Then there are the indirect costs: training replacement employees; job transfer or restrictions; accident investigation and implementation of corrective measures; lost productivity; repairs of damaged equipment and property; lower employee morale. (Here’s a calculator for estimating the impact of these costs on your company’s profitability.)
Drones stand to sharply reduce this cost item for businesses, by reducing worker hazards.
New Insights from Data Not Being Captured Before
Using UAS, a West Coast solar utility has not only dramatically cut the time required for site assessing new locales for their utility-scale solar farms. The sensors they use also provide more robust GIS and orthoimagery data that improve the end design of the plant. They can create 3D visualizations, better analyze construction costs and optimize placement of ground-mounted PV panels so they generate the most energy.
The efficiencies drones bring are one reason they are being readily adopted in so many industries. The West Coast solar company found that manual site assessment for a 500kW site takes two technicians up to two days, while a 40-minute drone flight can map a 1MW site.
With such successes, it’s common for a company to find new uses for its UAS program, deriving still more value from it. A program that begins with inspections can grow to help with inventory management and then to 3D modeling and site mapping.
Stantec, a multinational design, architecture, and engineering firm, initially used UAVs as a tool for aerial imaging. Now they’re finding value by useing drones for survey mapping, 3D modeling, inspections, and even detecting anthropological or paleontological resources on proposed building sites.
Drones have allowed construction contractor Hensel Phelps to improve the quality of information they supply to their many stakeholders and partners. LIDAR sensors mounted on drones have improved surveying efficiency and accuracy. The company uses infrared thermal sensors to find HVAC energy efficiency opportunities. They now capture cloud points that are incorporated into building information modeling software and provided to architects. Photogrammetry is providing valuable data on site monitoring and job progress to superintendents and job site managers. They can supply cardinal direction views for clients and building owners for 3D models, marketing videos, and to keep clients updated on job progress. Hensel Phelps also uses drones to inspect exterior flashing—the strips of metal that keep windows in place—on high rise buildings.
In this video, Hensel Phelps discusses the competitive advantages they’ve achieved from drones, as well as how they use Skyward to manage their operations.
Organizations more often underestimate than overestimate the ways drone adoption will positively impact their businesses. Be sure to look at the full picture as you calculate the value for your company.
Scott Duffin has many years working for aviation companies and is excited to bring his expertise to the drone space. He consults with major enterprises on all phases of UAS operations, including calculating ROI, identifying priority uses for corporations, training, and more. Scott is available for consultations regarding Skyward’s Professional Services and software platform.