In less than a decade, drones have gone from niche hobby to a industry-transforming technology thanks to the scope of its applications. In the lead-up to his presentation at the 2018 National Construction Equipment Convention (NCEC), we caught up with Nick Smith, CEO of Airsight Australia, to discuss the pioneering impact of drones on the civil construction industry and how organisations can best make use of UAV technology as it evolves.

Nick Smith has had his finger on the pulse of the commercial drone industry for longer than most. He began development of the business model for Airsight Australia in 2009 and launched it in 2012, long before civilian drones entered the mainstream.

In that time, he’s witnessed drones grow into a revolutionary force and open a new frontier of mapping and inspection possibilities for the civil construction industry.

“As a geospatially-focused toolkit, the potential is nearly limitless,” Mr Smith said.

The range and maneuverability of drones greatly facilitates the assessment of job sites during each stage of the building process, from the bid phase through to site planning and full construction.

“Being able to understand what is on a site prior to and during construction can really give management an edge in terms of a thorough understanding of what that site looks like and what the potential risks are to the construction process,” Mr Smith said.

“It can also be highly valuable from both a quality control and accounting standpoint to be able to track progress during construction with regular aerial surveys.”

Improvement over replacement

According to Mr Smith, drones should be looked at, not as a replacement for traditional work and data acquisition methods, but as an improvement on them. Gathering mapping data and conducting surveys on sites is already common practice; where drones excel is in how that data is acquired and processed.

“If you send a worker out, it could take them half a day or more just to cover a site and collect the required information, in addition to the physical obstacles or hazards they might have to deal with,” Mr Smith said.

“With a drone, we can be on site in the morning, capture data by mid-morning, and process and deliver it by the end of the day, if not sooner.

“The expediency and quality of actionable data goes up, while safety risks to people on site goes down.”

Types of organisations that could benefit from drone data range from top-tiered government agencies and major infrastructure companies, to small construction businesses, and even includes project consultants like engineers, surveyors and architects.

The same high-resolution aerial photographs that surveyors use to produce digital terrain models can be used by the construction firm for site planning, and by management for big-picture analysis and financier pitches.

“One flyover of a site can produce an immense amount of data that is valuable to all different levels through the chain of a construction project,” Mr Smith said.

In order for civil construction companies to ensure they’re analysing and implementing drone data to its full potential, it’s vital to understand this value chain.

“Optimising data means making it available in formats that are useable and explorable for each type of stakeholder who looks at it.”

Smart data processing

Some of the most exciting new developments in the use of drone data relate back to the accessibility of unprecedented amounts of information now available — and specifically, how that data is processed.

“Machine learning is making it possible to automate data analysis,” Mr Smith said.

“We’re already seeing artificial intelligence utilised for predictive maintenance and analytics, and we’re now starting to be able to identify defects and predict anomalies before they become large-scale problems.

“When you apply this to safety — predicting a rock fall before it happens, for instance — these technologies could literally save lives.”

Adoption hurdles

Utilising drone data to its full potential doesn’t come without certain challenges — some of which, depending on resources, can be sizable.

To begin with, companies with drone programs have to conform to rules imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). These regulations may include notifying the Authority before flying, and attaining licensure and certification, such as a remote pilot license.

“If you’re an organisation, and you start to adopt a drone program, you might be a hundred-year-old civil construction firm, but all of a sudden you’re now becoming an aviation company,” said Mr Smith.

“That brings along with it certain management capabilities, certain systems and processes that are quite foreign, potentially, to a civil construction concern.”

What’s often even more difficult than the compliance checklist is the organisation-wide commitment and training required to run an internal drone program effectively.

“Successful drone programs make adapting to change a core methodology,” said Mr Smith.

“The complexities around this technology, especially as a new technology, mean there’s a lot of learning to do. And a lot of that learning comes from making mistakes.”

When deciding whether to build an internal drone program, organisations should weigh the costs of compliance, training and research against their ongoing needs.

For some, it may be more cost efficient to outsource data collection to a drone operating company. Others may find that, while these compliance and training hurdles are significant, they are far from insurmountable.

“It really comes down to a management change process. That’s a barrier, but it’s a manageable barrier,” said Mr Smith.