Even in construction-saturated, high-tech capital San Francisco where I'm based, it can be easy to forget that construction is now a high tech industry itself. Those dump trucks and cranes and hard hats have remained the same for decades, right? But while many of the basic tenants of engineering and architecture are still the same, the technology being leveraged to execute them is progressing by leaps and bounds.
Some of these advances are material-based, like transparent solar panels that were developed at Michigan State University. Others, like the emergence of 3D printing, are changing how we build things. But one of the biggest advances in recent years is the meteoric rise in the use of drones.
Drones, which are incredibly popular with amateur photographers, might seem about as out of place on a construction site as an earth mover would in an art studio. However, as those of us who have been following the construction of Apple's new "spaceship" headquarters can tell you, drones provide invaluable perspective. Construction expert Dick Zhang, CEO of Identified Technologies, says builders are rapidly falling in love with the hovering aircraft.
"Using drones for mapping and analysis of construction sites does more than save time and money, it enables builders to see details that were previously unattainable. They are a total game changer and companies can't get enough of them."
Here are four ways drones are changing construction, permanently.
On a standard 100 acre-square construction site, a team of people could need up to six weeks to properly map it out. All of the contours and peculiarities of each site must be meticulously documented from the beginning or all subsequent planning and building could be negatively impacted. Mistakes can cost millions of dollars.
But time is costly as well. Every day not spent building could be another day that a large piece of rented machinery sits unused, adding to the cost of the project. And assessments need to occur throughout a construction project, not just in the beginning. Project managers need to know if the build is following the original map down to the centimeter, sometimes on a daily basis.
Drones can do in 10 minutes what a whole team of people might need more than a month to accomplish. Not only that, but drones can do perform the same mapping and analysis function every day for the entire duration of the project if needed, giving the project manager a level of control never previously attainable.
Believe it or not, the selling point of drones here is not just that humans occasionally make "human errors". Drones are actually capable of rendering detail and accuracy to a degree that was not even previously conceivable. Some of the modeling that gets done done includes 3D modeling, contour line maps, 3D volumetric analysis, progress forecasting models, and more.
The tangibility and specificity of these tools are actually disruptive, and that is not using that term lightly. This is not disruptive in the cliche way that people talk about a new food ordering app. Drones are radically changing the way construction is done from start to finish.
3. Constant Updating
Because of the versatility of drones and the software that they integrate with, project managers now have access to daily updates on their site and can see obstacles developing in real time, as opposed to reacting to them after the fact. This alone may be reason enough to prefer drone mapping to human mapping.
If a project is supposed to be completed in 100 days, finding out on day 75 that a wall or a supporting pillar was built a foot out of place could be devastating. The result could be enormous delays, huge added expenses, and loss of consumer confidence. As devastating as that result is, it actually happens enough that people have come to expect it in the construction industry. In fact, construction companies budget mistakes like that into their bids knowing that they are likely to happen.
Drones can substantially reduce that risk.
4. Enhanced Detail
When people think of drones in the private sector, they think of applications like real estate or tourism. In these industries drones are used to create virtual tours of homes that are for sale or vacation destinations you might want to visit. The ability to click-and-drag and turn yourself around within the video makes the tour far more tangible than a simple video or picture.
The same is true of the models that drones can produce of construction sites. Project managers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal with drones and new options are coming to market rapidly. Some of these include thermal imaging, gas detection (methane) and "multi spectral."
When we think of maps on a construction site, we think of large scrolls with highly technical blueprints on them and a lot of people in hardhats standing around trying to figure out what they mean. But that is increasingly an idea based on an old reality. Today, project managers are looking at a computer screen and analyzing information that was not available just a handful of years ago. It is information that is taking construction into the modern age of efficiency and speed.