Drones in Construction: How Drones Are Helping Construction Companies Save Money, Improve Safety Conditions, and Keep Customers Happy
BY Zacc Dukowitz6 June 2020
The use of drones in construction has already led to many changes in the way buildings are made.
In the last few years, drones have helped make several improvements in construction, from increased accuracy in reporting, to improving safety conditions, to cutting costs and increasing efficiency.
AI-driven software has developed alongside drone technology. This software contains powerful systems for processing a drone’s raw visual data to provide detailed maps of construction sites.
But one of the biggest winners in the advent of drones in construction work have been the clients.
With drones making it easier and easier for companies to provide visual data on the progress of a construction project, clients can now get quick updates on how things are proceeding. These updates include detailed maps of the entire site with GPS points, which allow you to zoom in and view small details of the area.
Detailed visual reports can then be shared with stakeholders, helping everyone involved in a construction project to see what has already been done and what work is remaining.
Below we’ll cover what drones are doing to improve construction operations, and also give you some concrete information on what the construction drone market looks like and how you might be able to break into it as a drone pilot.
Drones in Construction: How Are Drones Used on a Construction Site?
The big benefit to using a drone in construction is getting quick, accurate visual data of a site.
This data can then be used in a number of ways. It can be shared with clients, with internal teams, used to help improve safety, and to focus efforts toward completing a project faster.
Why Is Visual Data So Important on a Construction Site?
Construction projects are often huge operations, with a lot happening over a large area. While building, visual information is the only way to know what’s happening on-site.
Project managers for construction companies will tell you that real-time control of the project is one of the most difficult things to maintain. Real-time control requires real-time data.
Typically, data is collected by construction personnel walking a site by foot, manually gathering information as they go. But this process is labor-intensive and slow, and doesn’t allow companies to react quickly to changes on the ground.
For example, after a big rain a site could have changed dramatically, rendering data collected the day before obsolete. If a potential problem on the site is missed for even a few days while a new report is created manually, the delay could result in significant setbacks, which could end up pushing the project over budget, sometimes by millions of dollars.
Now compare this to the speed and efficiency of using a drone in construction work instead.
With a 15-minute flight, a drone pilot can gather the same visual data that it might take a surveyor working for a construction company half a day to collect by walking on foot.
And the construction drone’s data will be more thorough and more accurate because the drone can capture visual footage constantly while in flight. This footage can later be processed automatically using software created just for this purpose into several different kinds of maps of the entire site.
Also, there are places on construction sites that are just too dangerous for a person to enter. After all, you’re not going to ask someone to walk around the edge of a sinkhole, or send someone onto the roof of a condemned building.
But a construction drone can fly overhead and create a record of everything happening within a dangerous area, providing crucial information that will help determine how to proceed.
Here are some of the ways you’ll find people using drones in construction right now:
- Reporting to customers
- Identifying safety concerns
- Tracking progress and identifying potential problems / delays
- Creating 3D and orthomosaic maps, which can be used for all of the above purposes, as well as to measure stockpiles of various materials on the construction site
Eight Trillion a Year: Big Opportunities for Drones in Construction
Eight trillion dollars a year—that’s how much the construction industry is currently worth.
But it’s incredibly inefficient. In fact, the typical commercial construction project runs 80% over budget and 20 months behind schedule.
This inefficiency presents a massive opportunity for drones in construction, as 3DR’s CEO Chris Anderson has pointed out.
On-screen, in the architect’s CAD file, everything looks perfect. But on-site, in the mud and dust, things are different. And the difference between concept and reality is where about $3 trillion of that $8 trillion gets lost, in a cascade of change orders, rework, and schedule slips. Drones are meant to close that gap.
– Chris Anderson, CEO of 3DR
If drone pilots can capture just a small fraction of that three trillion through working drones on construction projects it will permanently change the way construction companies do business for the better. And it will also mean a huge influx of reliable income for anyone working with drones in construction.
How Companies Are Using Drones in Construction: Five Ways Drones Are Changing the Way Construction Is Done
Drones are changing the way construction companies do business, helping them coordinate teams more efficiently, track progress more regularly, and complete projects faster with less waste.
Here are five ways drones are being used in construction operations right now.
Visual data collected by drone can help construction companies get a solid understanding of the entire site before they begin construction.
This pre-planning data can show possible drainage spots, changes in elevation, and other factors that can help determine the best places to build, dig, or stockpile materials. For example, if a map created with drone data reveals that a certain area is in a floodplain, that’s probably not the best place to build.
Drone data can also be used in pre-planning to give designers and architects a clear sense of how a new building might look next to an existing one, which helps them understand how the new project will impact the area from both a practical and an aesthetic viewpoint.
2. Keeping the Client in the Loop
Photos, videos, 3D models, and orthomosaic maps created with drone data can be used to provide clients with detailed, real-time reports on how things are progressing on-site.
On larger construction projects, there are often multiple stakeholders in multiple locations who are all eager to know how things are progressing.
Without a drone collecting visual data, clients would have to walk a site in person to see how things are moving along, or hire a helicopter at a prohibitively high cost to collect aerial shots or video. And even if they did take this step, the shots collected could be outdated after the next workday.
Given the relatively low expense of collecting visual data using a drone on a construction site, regular reports can now be sent to clients, helping them stay informed and happy about how things are moving along.
Since drones make the collection of visual data so much cheaper, construction companies can use drones in construction work to do aerial surveys more often, and this data can help them stay on top of changing conditions that may impact safety.
And safety on a construction site isn’t just about keeping workers safe—it’s also about finding access points where civilians could enter the work area and potentially hurt themselves.
Identifying a breach in the perimeter of a site on the same day it happens, instead of the next time someone walks by that specific area on foot, could make all the difference in preventing an accident.
4. Progress Monitoring to Improve Efficiency and Avoid Waste
Maps created with drone data can be created regularly and sent to a project manager, who can use them to plan and monitor progress, a crucial part of avoiding delays that can cause a project to go over budget.
Drone imaging can be used to show erection sequences, crane locations, and perimeter security (i.e., gaps in fencing), and these sequences can be viewed regularly to pinpoint where projects are starting to get congested or delayed.
We’ve had a 10-15% accuracy increase [with drones]…that alone has saved us thousands of dollars every year.
– Doug Stout, Compliance Manager, Eucon Corporation
5. Monitoring Productivity and Accountability On-Site
Maps of a construction site created with aerial data can also help project managers to monitor the productivity of their crew.
These maps can be used to see if equipment or machinery is missing or has been left in the wrong area of the site, and can help identify places where a manager may need to investigate to see why work isn’t proceeding as quickly as anticipated.
This kind of information saves the manager the time of having to walk the entire site on foot to review the condition of different aspects of the project. With drone data, the manager can just review a map, zoom in to see a certain area, and identify the problem from his or her office.
Another great thing about drone data is that it provides a permanent record of a project, which can be referenced at any time.
If something goes wrong down the line in a project, construction personnel can go back and review earlier data to understand the conditions that led to the problem.
A written report with a handful of images created by a person manually walking the site isn’t nearly as comprehensive. This kind of report couldn’t be used for the same kind of in-depth analysis of a site to understand everything that happened there.
Is There Work to be Found Flying Drones in Construction? And What Does It Pay?
A report created by Skyward last year found that drone construction work had the biggest piece of the commercial drone market.
A whopping 35% of the companies surveyed who reported using drones in their operations identified themselves as working in Construction & Engineering (i.e., working with drones in construction and related projects).
So if you’re a drone pilot interested in finding work on a construction site, the data seems to indicate that there’s work to be had, assuming you have the proper skills.
In-House or Freelance?
OK, so you want to work as a pilot flying drones in construction. Should you try to get hired by a company’s in-house drone program, or should you try to get hired as a freelance pilot?
In our 2019 Drone Industry Survey, 23% of respondents (86 out of 370) who worked for a company as a drone pilot reported working in Construction / Mining / Aggregates. This was the largest single category for those flying drones as part of an in-house drone operation.
The percentage of freelance / self-employed drone pilots who worked in construction was the same, with 23% of self-employed respondents (81 out of 353) working in Construction / Mining / Aggregates.
Based on this data, it seems like there’s probably work to be had either by joining an in-house drone program or by going the freelance route.
How Much Could I Make Flying a Drone in Construction?
Based on our research, self-employed drone pilots are starting out at around $50/hour for drone construction work, and highly skilled pilots can make anywhere from $250/hour to over $500/hour.
If you’re working for an in-house drone program in construction instead of for an hourly wage, the data we’ve seen shows experienced drone pilots making anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000 or more a year.
It’s important to emphasize that these numbers may vary based on factors like location, experience, and skill level.
Drones in Construction: Just the Beginning
Construction companies are already starting to use drones in a major way, but this is just the beginning.
Over the next few years, drones will only be used more and more for construction work. We’re going to see drone technology and software continue to evolve, with improvements in automation helping drone companies get the visual data they need even more quickly, at a lower and lower cost.
Want to break into working with drones in construction? Learn more about how you can improve your drone pilot skills and start an exciting new career path today.