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Drones a game changer for the construction sector

Delta CEO Craig Kirk writes about the transformational qualities of UAVs for the construction industry in the following article in Construction News.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones, as they’re popularly known – have gone from being a fancy photographic toy to an almost ubiquitous part of the landscape.

From early uses in a purely photographic or filming capacity, providing a cheaper and safer option to get aerial shots, drones have broadened their reach to take a commanding role in many sectors, notably real estate, agriculture, film, TV – and construction.

A 2018 Airways New Zealand survey found the largest employer of UAVs was real estate which made up almost 40% of drone time, closely followed by construction at just under 38%. But their use in construction is expected to continue to grow, given the advantages the technology offers.

Experts predict that in the very near future drones will replace up to US$45 billion in labour and services in the global infrastructure sector, and it’s easy to see the attraction of the technology in surveying and monitoring for builders and developers.

Uses of drones

The high mobility of drones and the high-quality imagery they can produce, at a fraction of the cost of conventional helicopter-assisted photography, are a major advantage. But UAVs also allow firms to collect data in situations where it would previously have been too dangerous or time-consuming to do so safely, such as surveying in high-temperature conditions or inspecting high-rise buildings or powerlines.

With the help of specialised software, builders can transform the data collected by drones into 3D structural models, topographical maps and volumetric measurements.

Drone use also significantly reduces the health and safety risks for construction workers. A study by PwC found that monitoring with drones on construction sites reduces the number of life-threatening events by more than 90%. Photographic or video evidence from drone footage can also be valuable in disputes or litigation.

More recently, UAV manufacturers have begun developing niche drone applications that are certainly of interest to construction. Kiwi company ASG Technologies, for example, has developed a drone capable of carrying up to 14 kg of steel rope for the forestry sector, reducing the time for the task from six days to six minutes. It’s not hard to see similar potential uses in the building sector.

Issues and Costs

There are around 2500 commercial UAV service providers in New Zealand. Most are independent contractors, but increasingly we’re seeing the emergence of in-house capabilities and teams.

Training in proper UAV use and gaining certification can be time-consuming, while drone costs can range from $2000 to $5000 for a standard drone, and up to $250,000 for a UAV with thermal imaging cameras and sensors.

The growth of drone prevalence is not without controversy. Violation of people’s privacy is clearly a major public issue, while there are some social concerns about drones replacing jobs. But a more obvious risk with UAVs is the potential for an errant drone to cause significant costly damage to property such as a building, vehicles or equipment – or, more seriously, crash into an aircraft in flight, with the potential risk of massive loss of life.

New Zealand has some of the more progressive UAV laws in the world. You can operate a drone without Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) registration or formal training if the drone weighs less than 15 kg and you fly it during the day below 400 ft (122 m) in uncontrolled airspace, with visual line-of-sight maintained at all times. Outside of these parameters you need to register with the CAA and have undergone formal training. Commercial operators must advise aviation authorities of their intentions before they are permitted to fly and film.

The risks tend to emerge where operators are untrained or are unaware of the restrictions. But operating a UAV is not easy and even trained pilots still crash or damage their aircraft. One study by RMIT University in Melbourne also showed that two-thirds of UAV accidents arise from technical defects rather than operator error, while an Australian commentator noted the high likelihood of an eagle attack on drones – something which occurs in one out of six to eight flights.

Financial Risks

For commercial operators, damage to your own drone can be expensive, but pales in comparison to the potential financial risk of your drone damaging a third party’s property, while the penalties for violating controlled airspace are also quite severe – and may possibly increase in New Zealand in the future. There have certainly been numerous incidents and close calls in New Zealand recently, and it’s possibly only a matter of time before a more serious incident occurs.

The significant increase in drones and the heightened risk of financial losses occurring through accidents or accidental airspace violations led our company to develop an insurance offering for commercial drone operators. Our specialist insurance covers damage to equipment (the drone), third-party liability associated with damage to assets such as buildings, and statutory liability, through a breach of CAA rules or health and safety regulations, for instance.

The future for drones in the construction industry is wide open too, as the technology becomes more robust and versatile. We foresee drone use expanding within construction beyond surveillance and imaging – being used, for example, to transport equipment – while research is also underway in drone design for use in aerial construction to build small installations such as ventilation systems.

The sky’s the limit, as they say.

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