Using Drones to Increase Net Safety on the Job Site

Senior Director of UAS Ops Consulting at Skyward

As drones become a mainstay at job sites across the United States, engineering and construction firms are having conversations about the risks and rewards of the new technology. Those who are leading the charge to incorporate unmanned aviation into their workflows face the challenge of convincing legal teams and risk-management experts that drones will not expose the company to undue risk and liability. We’ve talked about how to go about adding drones to your enterprise before, and as the technology gains widespread acceptance, we’re starting to see the early fruits of what drones can really offer. But to legal experts, drones – at least on the surface – seem to add several risk factors to the equation.

There is little hard data on how drones actually affect safety on the job site, so it’s difficult to make a strictly numbers-based argument on this front. This makes people who think in terms of statistics skittish about leaping before they look. The more conservative firms may prefer to wait until 2018, when we can see how the rollout of Part 107, and the increased sample size, actually bear themselves out in the data.

However, there are distinct advantages to being an early adopter. There is already a case to be made that drones can actually increase the safety of the job site. Today, we’ll be focusing on ways in which unmanned aircraft may make workflows safer for workers, and thus safer for the company. In a later piece, we’ll talk about ways to mitigate the unique but solvable risks that commercial drones present.

How Do People Get Hurt on the Job Site?

When you look at the OSHA statistics for casualties in 2015, you’ll see that of the 937 total deaths in the construction industry, 364 were caused by falls. At almost 39% of total deaths, falls represent by far the lion’s share of construction-related fatalities, highway traffic incidents excluded. Clearly, working at height is a dangerous job and should be avoided whenever possible. With the introduction of the commercial drone, we’re finally seeing an opportunity to get a good look at difficult-to-reach spots without someone climbing up there and putting themselves at risk. Here are just a few specific use cases for drones that help keep workers on the ground and otherwise out of harm’s way.

Appraising the Roof

The roof is one of the most difficult and dangerous areas of a building to inspect. Access is often difficult, sometimes requiring climbing on ladders or standing on scaffolding, and they are not always level, which increases the risk of a fall. Sometimes skylights are unintentionally left exposed or are made of weak material, causing an unlucky worker to fall through. Areas of a roof may be too damaged to support the weight of a person. Strong winds or adverse weather conditions can lead to a fall. Arranging adequate fall protection that anticipates these dangers involves painstaking and costly measures which many operators would rather avoid, if possible. Drone technology makes inspection cheaper, easier, and safer – which has the added bonus of allowing you to do it more often.

One of the earliest use cases for drones was attaching a high-quality camera to the aircraft and streaming the resulting video to someone on the ground. In this manner, a trained inspector can achieve the same results as they would if inspecting an object directly, while removing the need to put themselves in a situation where they could be harmed or killed in the event of a fall. This capability alone makes drones an attractive proposition for construction and engineering firms, insurers, and regulators who each need to perform frequent and thorough checks to ensure that proper protocols are being followed, and that structures are safe and constructed according to standards. In addition, the video recorded by a drone’s camera is viewable to anyone in the chain of command, increasing the transparency of such operations.

Climbing Up the Walls

Besides roofing inspections, there are other ways that UAVs can improve the overall safety of your operations. Here are several use cases which are already seeing time in the field.

  • Safer Scaffolding: Falls from scaffolding lead to dozens of deaths each year. Ensuring that scaffolding and other safety measures are safe with a visual inspection is vital to protecting the safety of workers and insulating the company from liability. With a drone, it’s simple to check that all boards are in place, inspect fastenings, and do so without sending an employee into a precarious situation. Of course, drones can sometimes eliminate the need for scaffolding entirely, such as when inspecting the walls of a building.
  • Flashing: Flashing requires inspection to avoid water damage, and in the event of a leak, to find and isolate the source of the problem. Inspecting flashing with a drone is not only cheaper and safer, but also helps preserve the value of your building. Water damage can lead to mold, structural damage, and other costly repairs.
  • Windows: Windows on tall buildings are difficult to inspect, especially when they don’t open from the inside. A drone can fly close to windows without the need to put a human worker on a ladder, scissor lift, or suspended scaffold. With this close vantage, it’s simple to check for cracks in insulation, weather-stripping, or damage to the glass itself.
  • Unstable or Crumbling Surfaces: In a recent case, a UAV was used to create a 3D model of a dilapidated dam that was deemed too dangerous for workers to walk on. Using drone technology, the surveyors were able to prevent risk to their employees, acquire aerial data they couldn’t have attained with a boat, and enjoy heavy savings when compared to hiring a helicopter.
  • Volumetric Stockpile Assessment: This quickly growing use case employs drones to calculate the quantity of gravel, aluminum rods, rock salt, sugar beets, or really anything in a large pile. Safety incidents involving surveyors climbing with heavy equipment across these huge piles, which can give way underfoot, are not uncommon. The results of a well-run drone aerial data operation are highly accurate and reliable, which gives little reason to continue putting workers at risk.

In all of these cases, drones represent a means of conducting inspections in a safer and less expensive fashion, making the process more efficient and allowing for more frequent inspections. This makes structures safer and saves the company money in the long run by heading off potential issues before they become significant problems.

The Tool of the Future

We’ve talked a lot about how drones can replace a set of human eyes, but they can do much more. Drones can be outfitted with a wide array of sensors that can see far beyond what the naked eye allows. When a building is close to completion, a drone with a thermal sensor can fly overhead and identify cold and hot spots, areas that might need additional HVAC infrastructure or could pose risks of electrical fire. A drone with thermal-imaging capabilities can also assess the efficiency of a solar panel array, showing any areas that are behaving abnormally.

Drones also offer huge advantages in the booming field of wind energy – the fastest-growing source of energy in the world – which is poised to become a major factor in the world’s energy economy. Drones are already being used to inspect wind turbines, sometimes 600 feet tall, allowing workers to minimize the time they spend climbing the structures and reducing the rate of accidents. In addition, the improved data they provide will help better maintain the safety and efficient functioning of the turbine. Navigant Research stated in a recent study that “[Blade] Deterioration can cause reduced energy production in early stages and catastrophic and costly blade collapse if left unnoticed. This is driving a brisk business in wind turbine blade inspections, a role that has traditionally been accomplished from the ground with simple visual inspections or more complicated and risky rope or platform access. A new approach using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, is rapidly muscling in as a middle option.”

Cell towers, at a smaller scale, present similar challenges that drones can help address. Companies like Talon Aerolytics are already using UAV technology to inspect cell phone towers, deploying a workforce of mobile operators capable of systematically inspecting hundreds of thousands of towers annually, which greatly reduces the time people spend working at height.

Weighing the Alternative
As we’ve shown, unmanned aviation can mitigate some of most severe risks that workers face on the job site. Of course, someone coming from a risk-management perspective may still object that drones pose too many risks of their own. In our next piece, we’ll highlight the many ways to mitigate those risks, further increasing the gains in net safety and relative risk that drones offer construction and engineering firms.