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Drones in construction – designing for urban air mobility

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, as they are more commonly known, as data collection platforms to service a diverse range of civilian and commercial uses is an area that has grown rapidly in recent years. This has been aided by a decrease in the cost and an increase in the reliability of the technology. It continues to be an area of extensive research and development.

In the current time of restrictions on site activities and methods of working, the use of drones for inspection is likely to increase. While data collection is a common and continuing use of drones in the construction industry, their potential goes much further.

Data collection in the construction industry

The current benefits of drones include relatively easy access to large or difficult sites and tall or complex structures, coupled with low set up costs when compared to the traditional use of cherry pickers or scaffolding to access difficult areas. The ability to operate drones remotely also increases safety on site.

The use of drones for data collection before, during and after the construction phase includes:

  • Building surveys and maintenance: Performing a building survey using a drone can save time and money. 3D images can be produced and processed more efficiently and access can be gained more easily and safely to difficult and spatially challenged sites using drone technology as compared to the limitations posed by physical inspection. Early faults and wear can be more quickly and economically identified saving potentially costly repairs or replacement.
  • Health and safety: Site plans can be quickly and efficiently updated to show where different works are taking place, making it much easier to convey this information on a regular basis to site operatives.
  • Progress tracking and reporting: Progress reports are usually prepared weekly or monthly to record site progress against the project programme. These usually involve the surveyor or contract administrator taking multiple photographs of different parts of the site. Using a drone regularly can provide a faster and more effective way of recording project progress, freeing up the contract administrator’s time and giving employers a quick update on how works are proceeding. The drone can fly the same path multiple times a day to create time lapse images for comparative analysis and provide detailed maps of the entire project with GPS points, which allows review of a particular part of a site in minute detail. This may assist in identifying any problems at an early stage and possibly before they become costly or delay the programme. Further, the retention of such detailed records may reduce disputes as the contractor is able to demonstrate the rate of progress with the requisite records.
  • Security: Sites can be continuously monitored by drones from a range of locations and viewpoints, allowing increased security to protect materials and reduce the risk of trespassers. Not only does this give the parties peace of mind but it can reduce the cost of security.
  • Building Information Modelling (BIM): Drones can quickly collect high resolution images to input into PC or cloud based photogrammetry systems to produce 3D maps and point clouds. The aerial perspective and digital data provides greater consistency and data density for use in BIM.
  • Monitoring environmental factors: Sensors can be mounted on drones to allow monitoring of environmental factors. For example, in areas of contaminated land, hyperspectral sensors which are used for hyperspectral imaging (imaging which collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum) can be used to detect soil contamination.

Urban air mobility

As well as utilising drones to support the construction stage, a key consideration for buildings and their design both now and in the future is how they will fit into a world with increasing urban air mobility.

With increasing traffic congestion and pollution, and with ground based infrastructure stretched beyond its capacity and expensive, sometimes impossible, to improve, it is not surprising that delivery service providers have investigated how they might use urban air mobility and drone technology to supplement traditional forms of transport.

The integration of flexible take-off and landing infrastructure in major cities around the world will be crucial for the success of urban air mobility. The world’s first full scale air taxi, VoloPort, was unveiled in Singapore at the end of last year. While a passenger taxi service is still some time away, testing is underway. It is an indication of things to come and buildings need to be designed with an eye on these likely future requirements.

While developers and owners have been creating “smart buildings” to cater for the demand of modern society, they should also consider drone connectivity for the future. Adopting adaptable infrastructure in new buildings now may preclude expensive renovation works later. Future-proofing new developments in this way should certainly be considered in order to maintain – and hopefully enhance – the value of the investment.

Cargo handling

The number of parcel deliveries is continually increasing. In London alone, parcel deliveries increased by 65% between 2012 and 2016 and they are expected to grow by a further 33% by 2021. In the future, drones may be used to assist in cargo handling, reducing time and risks associated with the delivery of materials.

Cargo drones are already operating successfully in China, Switzerland and Africa – with a particular focus on medical deliveries. UK based drone infrastructure and operating company Skyports are conducting flight trials in the UK, Finland, Belgium and Sweden. Drones are faster and offer reduced carbon dioxide emissions consistent with the need to reduce the environmental impact of the forms of transport on which we currently rely.

It is likely that drone delivery of certain materials to site will not be the most economical model given their size and weight. However, drones may be used for delivery of some materials, including modular items. They may also be used as a means to inspect cargo deliveries when they reach site to ensure the delivery accords with the orders placed.

What’s next?

Drones have the potential to bring great benefits. In its report on drones, Skies without limits, PwC predicts that the industry will contribute an extra £42 billion to the UK by 2030. How we utilise the drone technology that exists and develops in the future will have a significant impact on the benefits they could bring. This must be balanced with the risks of using drones, as shown by recent reports of near misses with aircraft.

There is a regulatory framework for anyone using a drone on a construction site, although in some respects the law is “playing catch-up”, rather than proactively anticipating the legal issues that will arise. This article does not address the regulatory framework for flying drones in the UK.

It is clear that the use of drones will continue to increase in the construction industry. There are potentially significant cost, time and safety benefits in using this technology and it will be interesting to see how the use of drones and the law surrounding them will develop in the future.

This article was written by James Worthington and Sara Cunningham at Charles Russell Speechlys, and  was originally published as a blog by Practical Law Construction on 5 May 2020 and updated in July 2020.

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