Drone…is it what you thought?

Quadcopter, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s), Unpiloted Air System (UAS’s) or the most recognized term, drone, are just a few of the many names describing this flying technology.  One of the first things people think of when they hear the word “drone” is the military drone such as a Predator, but what they don’t know is that the “drones” most widely used throughout the A/E/C industry aren’t like those at all.  Actually called a quadcopter, this flying technology only weighs about four pounds and has four propellers.  The popular military drone known as the Predator weighs approximately 1,130 pounds (empty weight) and has the capacity to fly up to 25,000 feet.  These larger drones are mostly used for research and intelligence and can go on long, unmanned flights which are out of the line of sight.

We interviewed a contractor within the industry who is using the quadcopters.  Dustin Burns, the IT Director at McCownGordon Construction, filled us in on how the company is using their quadcopter and the benefits they have seen thus far. They can only fly in the line of sight and are flown up to 200 feet high, even though they could fly up to 500 feet. So you can see the difference in what most people think of when they hear the word “drone” as opposed to the quadcopters that are being used within the A/E/C industry.

For McCownGordon one of the main benefits of the quadcopter is the life safety aspect of it. For example, when faced with a task of having to inspect an outside window on the 6th floor due to a leak, it was a no brainer to give the quadcopter this task as opposed to putting one of their own employees in a lift or a crane to inspect the window in question. The quadcopter is up and back down on the ground within minutes, bringing still images and video footage of the 6th floor window with it.  They can then assess those images and footage and decide the next plan of action.

In another case, McCownGordon had just finished removing lead paint and repainting an exterior soffit on a building when some of the paint started to peel.  For starters they needed to document that the paint was indeed peeling and then inspect it to see how the paint was coming off. (i.e. bubbling, chipping, etc.) In the past, before they had a quadcopter they had two options.  They would have sent an employee up a 24 foot ladder, to take photos, and basically go around the entire building doing this, or bring in a lift, which is a little bit safer and which of course would make the person mobile around the entire building.  With a quadcopter, they flew close to the soffit, circled the entire building, photo and video documented it in high definition, which only took about 15 minutes. Because they were able to use the quadcopter they were able to eliminate the need to put an employee on a ladder or in a lift, saving a substantial amount of money.

In any instance where the quadcopter is used, safety is top of mind.  Before every flight a multitude of factors are taken into consideration such as wind speed, sufficient amount of open acreage, number of people around during the flight and ensuring it will not be flying in a direct flight path of or in close distance to an airport.  They inspect the equipment thoroughly before each flight and get permission to conduct the flight (i.e. if they want to fly on a jobsite, they receive permission before doing so).

Aerial Image Shot with Quadcopter
The quadcopter has also shown to be very beneficial for project progress.  It is a huge benefit to the contractor as well as the owner to be able to see aerial footage and still images of progress on the project site. The quadcopter also takes high definition video, which allows the project team to analyze and understand the stage of that particular project.  Another advantage is all the aerial footage and still images can be provided to the project owners for their own use.

McCownGordon is preparing to use the quadcopter for creating 3D model views of a structure, along with using topography (the arrangement of the natural and artificial physical features of an area). For example, the quadcopter can survey a field, take that information back to the office, process it, and then give actual elevations. When evaluating a building, the quadcopter can measure the building and do takeoff for the building to collect the dimensions. It is similar to laser scanning but your end product is a photo of a building that is three dimensional and measurable.  You can then take that 3D model and import it into a program like Revit (Building Design Software), manipulate it and then start modeling from there.

Even though the future is unknown, the use of the quadcopters, (UAV’s, UAS’s, drones) will become more and more prevalent.  The drone economy is poised to have explosive growth to the tune of a $140 billion market by 2020. (Cloud Tweaks)  The biggest benefit for McCownGordon is the safety advantage, but along with that, the cost savings has been huge.  Before using the quadcopter for aerial video footage and still images, they were paying approximately $850/month for aerial photography using a helicopter. Aside from the $850 they are saving per month, they have now eliminated the need to have a person in a helicopter thus proving another safety advantage.  Since the quadcopter, which McCownGordon uses, is around the $1,500 mark, if their quad copter takes two flights for aerial shots, it has paid for itself.

McCownGordon is adamant about life safety. This is not something to “play” around with and should be taken seriously. For example, for an individual flying the quadcopter as a hobby, there is no training or license required as long as they don’t fly it within 5 miles of an airport. If you use a quadcopter as a hobby be aware of the consequences and understand that it isn’t a toy.  For commercial use, the current U.S. law requires a case-by-case FAA certificate of authorization.

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