Smart Construction's Guide to Drones in Excavating

A decade ago, most people thought of drones as cool but impractical toys. Now, drones are used for everything from wildfire management to deliveries to surveying. It’s high time for contractors to use drones and drone mapping software on excavation and earthwork projects.

This is the first post in a series about drones in construction. Stay tuned for future posts!

The rapid rise of commercial drone use

Drone surveying and mapping are rising in popularity throughout North America, but this is a relatively new development in commercial drone use. In the early 2000s, drones were too expensive for all but a few niche use cases. A high-precision drone retailed for over $20,000 and required several expensive and difficult-to-use software programs to make the data useful. Drone pilot licenses were difficult to come by, and using these drones required significant flying experience and advanced photogrammetry skills. 

This has all changed dramatically in the last decade. 

Precision drones are now much more affordable (less than $10K); becoming a licensed drone pilot has become easier; new software and advanced cameras make it easier to generate a point cloud (a collection of data points mapped in 3D); and the systems needed to use drones effectively (both viewing platform and drone) are now much easier to use, even for a non-expert. These factors have led to a significant increase in commercial drone use over the last decade, especially in the construction industry. 

Drones in construction

There are many drone portal platforms on the market today, many of which have streamlined workflows tailored for construction industry users. Not only do you get a cleaned surface to perform measurements, but also a high quality orthomosaic image (comprehensive image that is created from all the individual pictures taken from the drone) that allows you to view and understand the jobsite all at once. 

Having the power to visualize the jobsite makes it easier to communicate with all parties on the job: foreman, designer, project manager, and owner. The adage ‘a picture’s worth a thousand words’ holds true in this situation. Visualizing a problem leads to better understanding, more effective communication, and quicker resolution. 

Since we now have repeatable, reliable, and accurate drone surveys, we can utilize the accurate point cloud to create a digital surface model to compare against the construction model, showing us the jobsite cut/fill. Having the cut/fill map and being able to understand how the material needs to be moved allows for proper project planning and communication of work necessary for completion. 

This data can also indicate if there are any grade busts throughout the jobsite. Finding these types of issues early in the process prevents wasted time and effort before the issue(s) become unavoidable rework. Early detection prevents a large loss of profits. 

Common use cases in excavating

There are many obvious use cases for drones in excavation, and many more may emerge as adoption increases and software improves. Let’s start with some of the more common use cases and their benefits.

Using drones to determine existing ground conditions with accuracy

This is the most popular use case for utilizing drone survey technology and provides the highest value of a drone program today. Utilizing existing ground terrain allows for accurate existing requirement evaluation to complete the project on time. This can be done before the project begins and repeatedly throughout the project as new information (updated drone flight) comes in. Making this measurement is a simple cut/fill to determine how much material is left to complete the project. This data also allows for understanding what has happened between billing cycles, making for accurate billing to ensure proper cash flow. 

Date- and time-stamped jobsite photos

Having a detailed, time-stamped set of photos can be used in numerous ways throughout the project. Photos can be used as proof of existing conditions before construction begins (eliminating the conflict that could arise with surrounding property owners). The existing conditions can be utilized for proof of material deliveries, verification of installation of contract items (curb, manholes, underground utilities before being buried) while providing the ability to make simple measurements such as length of pipe installed, distance to nearest structure, square feet of asphalt laid, etc. Lastly, having all of these orthomosaic photos in one location allows you to track your jobsite over time. Looking back becomes easy and demonstrating project progress requires significantly less effort. Many contractors are able to show that they are ahead of schedule based on accurate drone photos, reducing collections risk for project progress.

Creating visuals and inspections

While a less common use case today, drones can be used to generate visuals on a jobsite and perform inspections. These can be quick snap shots from varying heights on a project to highlight a key feature or some interesting work to be utilized on a website. Inspections are a great application for drones because they can provide visuals while the drone operator maintains clearance from safety hazards while providing critical data to analyze a situation. We expect that regulators and safety agencies will begin relying more heavily on drone data in the coming years, reducing the overall inspection burden on both contractors and safety organizations. 

Things to know about drones

As stated above, the use of drones in excavating has been around for many years. While the regulations have changed – often for the better – there are still rules to follow. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires a commercial drone pilot to be licensed when operating a drone for commercial purposes (anything to be utilized by a company) through the FAA’s Part 107 program. While this can seem daunting, getting certified is a simple process that involves self-study and passing a Part 107 exam.

The license is good for 2-year intervals and is renewable through a Part 107 Recurrent test. Since this regulation has been around for almost a decade, there are a lot of study programs (both paid and free) that are available to help familiarize yourself with the test and regulations necessary for safe operation of a drone. 

Look out for a Part 107 guide in a future post!

It’s helpful to keep in mind that not all projects and job sites are good for drones. Some site barriers prevent good drone photogrammetry (process of obtaining a 3D image from 2D photos) and result in poor data. Some features that limit the effectiveness of drones on a job site include: 

  • Tall, dense vegetation
  • Snow cover
  • Tree canopy
  • Foggy conditions
  • Proximity to airports or restricted airspace
  • Large amounts of standing water or highly reflective surfaces 

The other factor to take into consideration is the size of the jobsite and drone flight.  If a jobsite is very small (less than 5 acres) with little excavation or earthmoving activity, the cost-benefit of flying the drone may not be valuable. However, as a customer put it: “not all drone data is necessary, but when it is necessary, it’s invaluable.” 

So, before your next drone flight, make sure you have clear goals to be accomplished so that time and effort are not wasted. 

Smart Construction’s use of drone data

Smart Construction primarily utilizes drone data in our 3D visualization platform Smart Construction Dashboard. This platform is the surface repository for everything on the jobsite: drone data, design data, orthomosaic photo and as-built data from Smart Construction Retrofit or Komatsu Intelligent Machines. 

The use of as-built data paired with drone data is what sets Smart Construction Dashboard apart from other drone viewing platforms. This data comes in automatically from Smart Construction Retrofit and Komatsu Intelligent Machines without additional effort and allows companies the ability to monitor machine data to view jobsite progress between flights. The as-built data reduces the number of flights necessary during the jobsite duration because you are getting real time information as the project progresses. All the data, without all of the work.

Furthermore, drone data coupled with 3D design data is utilized in Smart Construction Simulation to provide jobsite optimization and validation of construction plans. Smart Construction Simulation is cutting-edge technology developed by Smart Construction to bridge the gap between new employees and employees with lots of experience. Smart Construction Simulation is a game changer when it comes to validation of construction plans and being able to visualize material movement throughout the project. 

Smart Construction Dashboard and Smart Construction Simulation are just two solutions in a suite of applications designed with the intent of improving construction processes and maximizing profits all while controlling the risk associated with any job. 

All in all, drones are a great way to visualize your plan or progress on most excavation and earthmoving projects. If you’re interested in learning more about drone programs or want to explore Smart Construction’s drone-related offerings, visit our site or book a demo today.

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