The use of drones in the construction industry has soared in recent years. In the past, drones were widely known for their use in the military, however, the construction industry is now realising the potential in this evolving technology. According to a survey carried out by drones direct, in 2016[1], 12% of construction firms were using drone technology. This figure is only set to increase, with Goldman Sachs predicting that the total spend between 2016 and 2020 on drones in construction, agriculture insurance and infrastructure inspection will be almost $20bn[2].

How do drones benefit the construction industry?

Some of the main uses of drones in the construction industry and their advantages over traditional construction methods are set out below:

Building surveys

Using a drone to perform building surveys can save time, money and reduce health and safety risks. Using software to compile orthomosaic or 3D images, information can be processed more efficiently. Drone outputs are inexpensive and swift compared to the use of helicopters or planes, as well as infinitely more flexible. Drones can be operated remotely from safe areas several hundred metres away from the construction works (as long as the pilot has a clear line of sight of the flying zone).

Construction site and maintenance inspections

Again, using a drone to carry out on site visual inspections before, during and after construction can save time and money and reduce health and safety risks. Aerial photography at different stages of construction can also be used for reporting and marketing campaigns. High quality video can be seamlessly transferred over large distances to any remote location meaning that clients do not necessarily need to be on site to inspect a location and to ensure accurate, issue-free workflow. Drones can be used to reduce risk to workers by avoiding unnecessary work from heights, use of cranes, cherry pickers or scaffolding (as well as reducing man hours). They can also reduce a business's carbon footprint and environmental impact, which is becoming increasingly important.

3D mapping and BIM

Building information modelling (BIM) is the process of generating and managing digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of a building. Drones can be used to 3D map a building by taking multiple images and stitching them together using software. In addition, whilst traditional point cloud methods can overlook uneven topography due to obstructions this isn’t an issue when using a drone. Aerial perspective provides greater consistency and data density for use in the creation of the initial BIM to show how the structure will look after construction[3].

Thermal imaging recording

Drones can be used to take thermal imaging recordings, giving engineers and surveyors essential information when trying to identify and rectify building defects. Thermal sensors are now much smaller in size and offer a greater variety of temperature profiles allowing the drone pilot to emphasise certain sections of the light spectrum.

What about the disadvantages?

Despite the above, drones have been the subject of bad press as of late. Even though there are no reports of any significant accidents involving drones yet, there have been several reports of near misses with commercial aircraft and incidents of drones being used to deliver packages to prison inmates[4].

Other issues for drone users to bear in mind are:

  • trespass - the UK law is yet be tested in relation to the rights of landowners with drone overflying
  • data protection and privacy risks - including under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) and the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which comes into force in May 2018
  • health and safety risks and liability.

Also, from the construction industry's point of view there is currently no standard form or terms of appointment for a business providing drone services. It is therefore not immediately clear what their obligations to a party engaging them should be.

Drone regulation

Recently the UK Government Department for Transport held a consultation on drones ("Unlocking the UK’s high tech economy: Consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK").

Our article "Taking off: drone regulation and the Government response to consultation on the safe use of drones in the UK" available here summarises the proposals that were put forward under a number of themes, together with the Government's response. In brief, these include:

  • further consideration to additional drone testing sites
  • working closely with the Drone Industry Action Group and other drone use experts to develop and promote relevant specialist standards for their fields
  • to convene, with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), a 'drone insurance project group' to develop solutions and implement best practice
  • the implementation of a registration scheme for all users of drones of 250g and above in weight
  • consideration of improving deterrents
  • the implementation of No Drone Flying Zones and use of signage
  • pursuing the development of drone traffic management systems in collaboration and consultation with industry and international partners.

Looking forward

Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the use of drones in the construction industry, as well as the law and regulation surrounding them, will continue to develop. In a February 2017 article, Tris Dyson suggested that by 2030 the use of drones will be commonplace in everyday life:

"A decade or so from now, fleets of drones will zoom across our cities. Some will be delivering medicines and vaccines to hospitals (already the case in Germany), while others will drop off sensitive contract documents for busy City workers. Drones will be performing assessments for Network Rail following winter storms, monitoring air pollution for the GLA, delivering live broadcasts for the BBC or even carrying people as they go about their business."[5]

It seems perhaps hard to imagine now, but if there is one thing about technology that we can take for granted it is that it will develop much faster than expected.