The Rise of the Drones


Drones – remote controlled mini aircraft – are making the construction industry safer and more efficient.

In my last post I discussed the emergence of unmanned machinery in the construction industry. In the near future, automated vehicles could be operating on sites without drivers. But there are, of course, already unmanned vehicles making a substantial impact on the construction industry.

Drones are not specifically construction machines, and they are generally remote controlled rather than automated, but they are unmanned and do make a substantial contribution to construction when fitted with a useful technology.

We usually think of drones as flying camera, but it is not just cameras that drones can carry; they can also be equipped with infrared scanners, thermal sensors or radiation monitors.

Even before projects begin, drones simplify the task of surveyors, mapping the land far more efficiently than previously possible, communicating directly with building information modelling programs.

They are used to inspect hard to access places, such as chimneys stacks or rooftops, to check on maintenance needs, or to assess damage where safety is an issue, such as in building partially collapsed by earthquake or explosion.

And drones are used to help monitor project progress, providing an unrivalled overview of large sites.

In France Vinci, for example, uses drones across its organisation, in quarries for topographical surveys and measuring reserves and to get close to high voltage power lines for inspections.

In the USA, Bechtel has teamed up with drone manufacturer Skycatch to exploit the technology for project management.

In New Zealand, the national transport agency has used drones to monitor the extent of vegetation overgrowth in preparation for a gully restoration program.

Hong Kong’s Electrical & Mechanical Services Department uses drones to check its gas pipes for leaks.

However, while drones have demonstrated their benefits across the world, there are also issues of concern that have not always been resolved. Firstly, protocols have had to be agreed with civil aviation authorities to make sure that these unmanned aircraft do not jeopardise the flights of larger passenger-carrying aircraft.

Then there is the question of air rights and privacy. Industrial complexes, major sporting events or outdoor rock concerts all want to protect their commercial interests from an uninvited spy in the sky. But private citizens are equally liable to be concerned by the implications of drones flying over their back yards. In the USA, where there are said to be as many guns as people, it seems as though shooting down drones has become something of a sport, despite it being illegal there.

Notwithstanding these yet-to-be-resolved tensions, the practical benefits of drones are bound to result in them becoming as standard a part of the construction tool bag as a chainsaw and a jack hammer.

Construction machinery manufacturers are also embracing drones. Sany, in China, has formed a partnership with drone maker BriSky Technology specifically for wind turbine inspections. Caterpillar has a marketing agreement with French firm Redbird to provide its customers in Europe, Africa and the Middle East with aerial technology to support their operations.

aerial robotics

aerial robotics

The future of drones could see them becoming much more than simple carriers of monitoring and measuring equipment; some see them becoming flying robots.

Researchers at three UK universities (Bath, Imperial College and University College London) have teamed up to develop drones that can fly into a disaster zone and use aerial additive building manufacturing (or 3D printing) to construct simple shelters to provide emergency accommodation.

It’s quite a vision!

Steve Rhine

About Steve Rhine

Community Manager at MachineryZone USA - All latest construction news on MachineryZone Mag!