Construction Drones Take Off



Unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, are taking off in the building world — and the construction industry has emerged as a key customer for new commercial drones. This is helping to drive the impressive drone market growth, which some analysts believe will top $5 billion by 2020.


Meanwhile, across all sectors, PwC estimates that $127.3 billion worth of labor and services is likely to be replaced by drones in the near future, with over a third of that value predicted to come from the infrastructure and construction industries.

How Drones Are Helping the Construction Industry

The use of drones is becoming more commonplace in construction projects to conduct site surveys and track project progress in real time by generating aerial photos, maps and 3D images. Drones are also proving useful for ensuring better worksite safety and increasing productivity. They can even be used on construction sites for jobs such as building and painting walls.


An article in Commercial UAV News recently discussed how one of the biggest benefits drones can bring to the construction industry is the immediate overall perspective they can provide about how projects are progressing — or where they are stalling. This data can then be compared against the project’s original plan, which can help the construction industry improve its efficiency, meet targets and keep costs under control.


Construction Week online reported how Japan’s construction industry is leading the way by using drones to gather data and feedback location information to automated bulldozers. Based on this information, areas can be cleared without any workers being on the construction site, which cuts costs, and increases safety and efficiency.


Much of the current drone technology is being developed by relatively small private companies and startups. Switzerland-based senseFly is an early significant player in the commercial drone market and has a range of drones for specific jobs. Surveying is the main one the construction industry is currently interested in, and senseFly already has a wide range of case studies showing what can be achieved with its drone technologies. Examples of the successful use of senseFly drones include a project in Colombia monitoring the use of materials in the construction of a major new road; mapping a new 85-mile-long railway corridor in Turkey; and mapping an energy pipeline running over 185 miles from Bolgatanga, Ghana, to Bingo, Burkina Faso.


Other early leaders in the drone technology market include Canadian company Aeryon Labs, which is using drones for projects in the offshore energy industry, mainly to inspect and maintain flare stacks. This is vastly improving the efficiency and safety of this routine job. Swedish firm CybAero, meanwhile, has developed a drone that looks like a mini helicopter, which it boasts has “excellent aerodynamic properties and superb adaptability.” CybAero is focusing on the energy systems inspection and maintenance market for now, as well as rescue services and border control.

The Future of Construction Drones

Robots and automation have already made a significant difference at construction sites, and we can expect to see drones make a significant difference too. The blog Drone Enthusiast has gone into great detail about the ways drones can change the sector, such as providing better monitoring and reporting of job progress so that clients don’t have to come out to a site. Perhaps one of the most interesting, though, is using drones for building inspections for ongoing maintenance, removing the need for construction workers to return and erect scaffolding to inspect roofs and high-rise buildings.


As we look ahead, combining drones with 3D building printers could change the construction industry beyond recognition.


In an article published by news site The Conversation last year, Paul Shepherd, Lecturer in Digital Architectonics at the University of Bath in the U.K., discussed the potential and the current limitations for 3D printing in construction. Currently, he says, the biggest limitation for their use in construction is size, because so far all 3D printers can only print structures that are as big as the printers.


Shepherd’s current research is trying to overcome the difficulties of using 3D printers in high-rise construction by developing automated, flying 3D printing drones. If successful, these drones would be able to 3D print buildings — without the constraint of being anchored to the ground.

Shepherd’s four-year research project is a collaboration between the University of Bath, Imperial College and University College London. The initial focus is to create a 3D building printer specifically to be used in disaster locations to provide humanitarian relief by quickly erecting shelters.


The team plans to do this by shrinking the large Additive Building Manufacturing (ABM) systems currently used to print buildings and building components. Once this has been achieved, the team aims to get to work on developing the technology that will allow drones to work in swarms to erect high-rise buildings safely and efficiently from the air.


With goals like this in sight, construction drones will likely continue to be flying high.

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