Infrastructure Innovation: Developing Creative AEC Solutions with Drones
Drones are one of the technologies most likely to really “take off” and have a significant impact on our industry. Whether referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned aircraft systems (UASs), remotely piloted aircraft, robots or drones, they’re already changing the way people approach design and construction.
The technology offers far more than just a single solution. It’s not just a mini copter with a camera to take aerial images; it’s a platform for solving problems, and many users are beginning to test the limits in terms of how many issues they truly address.
Among the more fun and quirky are companies that are using them for door-to-door delivery of goods ranging from tea to pizza and wings. Along the same vein but directed more toward a filling a gap in local unskilled labor, others are considering using them to wait tables. On a more serious note, others have looked at drones as a means for delivering instant health care. For the more adventurous, there are now camera platforms designed to follow you at a set distance to capture your every amazing athletic feat.
The construction industry no longer is limited to the more-obvious benefits of drone technology, such as taking site survey photos or safely capturing existing-conditions information in hard-to-reach areas. Although being able to take site photos whenever needed, and at a much reduced cost, or create 3-D existing-conditions models from those photos is nothing to sneeze at, this is just the beginning of what drone technology can deliver for design and construction.
In terms of construction, there have been small-scale tests in which drones lift and place construction elements into specific locations and semi-autonomously build a form. Although this demonstrates the promise of automated delivery, placement and installation, the issue of scalability remains. However, scale isn’t as much an issue in working with tensile materials such as cables or ropes. Several universities have been studying and testing the ability to fly vehicles with a spool of wire or filament behind them to lay out simple and complicated patterns and knots.
Note that drone technology isnt limited to flying vehicles. The Roomba is essentially a little home-cleaning drone for vacuuming floors. Ramp up the same technology, and you have laybots: construction robots designed to take a project’s CAD and BIM data and paint important locations, like penetration or wall-layout information, on a floor slab. This ensures that locations are accurate and correctly placed, leaving construction workers free to do the work.
One of the best showcases of the potential of UAV technology for construction comes from Japan, where Komatsu is looking to incorporate land- and air-based drones to marry their abilities and benefits. Komatsu implemented a “Smart Construction” initiative to address the issue of its aging workforce and a shortage of skilled labor as well as the need to be more efficient and save time. Part of the solution is to use aerial drones to take accurate and up-to-date photo-based scans of the site and its topography, which are used to help route and manage ground-based fleets.
Akinori Onodera, Komatsu president, states that the survey feature alone will save them a week’s worth of time. “The old way needed two persons for one week,” he notes. “The [drones] can do it in one or two hours [for a similar-size site].”
As drones continue to develop and become more prominent in the AEC industry, their ability to problem solve will evolve. Whether waiting tables or delivering construction materials, the issues and solutions are similar. The common thread is that the tools for solving the problems don’t remove the need for people, but make people more productive and effective, enabling them to focus on more important or skilled tasks as well as operate in areas that might not be safe for humans.