Drones in construction zones are on the rise

By Roger Morris
Special to Delaware Business Times

Delaware builders and construction companies are embracing a national trend to utilize drones instead of manned aircraft for everything from site selection to in-progress monitoring, according to participants at a recent Technology Forum of Delaware presentation held at Wilmington University.

“We were spending a lot of money for aerial photography,” said Bobby Judge, business development manager for Bancroft Construction. “The way I look at it, we have organized chaos at construction sites, and drones help us manage that,” whether it’s for a housing development, a new business campus or the recent restoration of Longwood Gardens’ iconic fountain and its surroundings.

“There was a 239 percent surge in the use of drones last year in the U.S. construction industry,” said Mike Edelin of the Buccini/Pollin Group (BPG). Other industries have incorporated them as well: There’s been a 198 percent increase of drone use in mining, 172 percent in agriculture, 171 percent in surveying and 118 percent in real estate, which is another fast-growing area.

“Counting both commercial and recreational usages, there are now about 1.5 million drones in theU.S.,” Edelin said.

While some builders such as BPG and Bancroft have their own in-house capabilities, many other companies employ consulting firms such as EDiS Co. to assist with program design and software integration. “For most companies, it’s been a fast-learning curve,” said Christopher Donahue, director of VDC/BIM services for EDiS in Delaware.

“The idea is to make drones your virtual tool box,” he said. “For example, we have software to stitch drone photos together” into a better-utilized format.

“Construction is the biggest user by far for commercial drones,” Donahue said, “and they demand a lot of data in a very short time. Each day is a different study.” Just as professional NFL football coaches use tablet computers on the sidelines to analyze in real time what the opponent is doing, construction firms similarly use daily or frequent data gathering from drones to make plan adjustments and efficiency improvements.

Drones are also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), and one that is particularly popular among local builders is the Quadcopter Phantom series. These drones cost up to $1,600 each, will stay aloft up to 30 minutes, weigh less than four pounds and are battery powered. Whether for commercial or recreational use, all UAS craft between .55 pounds and 55 pounds in weight must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“There are four of us at Bancroft who have our drone pilot licenses,” says Lauren Lyon, project coordinator for Bancroft, which was an early adopter of drones, beginning work with them in 2014. Having multiple pilots provides Bancroft with the flexibility necessary for it to be able to have simultaneous drone usage at their various sites in Delaware, New Jersey and Chester County, Pennsylvania.

To get pilot certifications, applicants train to pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test, including subject areas such as regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation; flight restrictions affecting drones; aviation weather sources and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance; how to handle emergencies; loading and performance procedures; radio communications, airport operations and maintenance and preflight inspection procedures.

These knowledge tests are conducted at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown.

Demand for drone education is rising, according to Thomas Day, the Wilmington University faculty member who is heading a new undergraduate certificate degree program in drone operations and applications. “We have all the latest drone equipment,” he said, “and I can tell you it isn’t cheap.” The curriculum for the 16-credit certificate program consists of five classes:

• Introduction to drone operations

• Drone design and maintenance

• Security of drone systems

• Drone in practice

• Aerial cinematography

Recently, the Delaware Department of Labor awarded a grant to Drone Workforce Solutions (DWS) to train unemployed students in selected ZIP codes in a 10-week, 70-hour course that will focus on topics such as
the anatomy of drones.

“Our first use of drones was in the garden reorganization program at Longwood Gardens,” Judge said. “The drone would fly over each morning and take pictures of the progress of the project. We set up a TV set in a trailer on the site, and we would have the pictures ready for communications with our subcontractors.”

This information allowed Bancroft to review progress on a daily basis, make changes as needed to daily tasks across construction teams and be on guard for potential safety hazards. “The information obtained from drones greatly enhanced communications,” Judge said.

The builders present at the Technology Forum meeting also said that drone-gathering information is increasingly being used for marketing presentations, whether highlighting current projects or illustrating the builder’s proficiency.

Although it is not yet fully explored, the group discussed the possibility of some tasks becoming automated and programmed in advance, required less hands-on guidance from a drone pilot – in essence, an automated pilot program similar to those used in commercial passenger aircraft.

Another potential use of drone-gathering information might eventually include regulatory requirements for drone footage to be submitted and reviewed before permits are granted as well as used in signoffs once construction is completed.

Non-military use of drones began about a dozen years ago, and Amazon began marketing them online in 2013, according to Judge. Almost from the beginning, a series of issues arose, initially concerning privacy of residents or companies in areas where the drones were to be utilized. In 2015, for example, California banned the use of drones by aerial paparazzi invading the airspace of celebrities. Such privacy issues for individuals and institutions remain on builders’ check lists before flight authorization.

Another concern is drone interference with private and commercial aircraft, particularly in airspace around airports. Meeting participants discussed examples of this aspect in which drone airspace may be limited in altitude for their projects near airport takeoff and landing areas.

The FAA says that it receives about 100 reports each month from pilots and others spotting drones in forbidden airspace.

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