Flight or Fodder: Will Drones take off in the construction industry?
From providing Geo-spatial survey data to building homes with the assistance of on board concrete-spraying hoses, since their first commercial application in the 1980s, drones are still commonly showcased as military or hobbyist tech but their application in the construction business is looking increasingly promising.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or remote control drone technology has already worked its way into a plethora of industries and professions. As of 2019, drone technology has become a modern staple in media coverage, agriculture, safety monitoring, emergency response and construction, and this trend doesn’t seem to have a stop in sight anytime soon. Global Management Consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported the value of the commercial drone activity across the US witnessed a steep incline from $40 million in 2012 to approximately $1 billion in 2017. This figure is estimated to reach somewhere between $31 to $46 billion by 2026 and is backed by a recent survey conducted by Boyden that revealed 4 in 10 senior tech executives believe that the development of drone technology to be a gaming-changing business in the next decade.
Since 2016, commercial interest in drone technology received a major boost when the Federal Aviation Administration altered regulations to make it easier for businesses to operate drones for commercial pursuit. As a result, drone technology looks poised to disrupt global business in multiple industries. Business Insider reported that commercial drone application surpassed military usage with a compound annual growth rate of 19% between 2015 to 2020 while military use remained at 5% growth. Moreover, the integration of drone technology is estimated to contribute 100,000+ jobs to the US economy by 2025.
Future of Drones in Construction:
Drone’s have increasingly become a staple in many a construction site as on-board UAV Geo-spatial data collection software provides mapping data and surveillance at a cheaper cost than conventional alternatives. This 240% increase in US on-site UAV drone application in 2018 was attributed to drone technology being a more efficient and safer method of carrying out accurate land surveys, collecting image data for 3D models and overseeing that safety inspections are appropriately conducted.
The application of drones in construction does not end there, as reports from PricewaterhouseCoopers have suggested, drones of the future will not be limited to data collection but will be equipped with multi-purpose tools and go on to play an active role in conducting repairs across all types of infrastructure.
“diagnosing problems with crumbling infrastructure, such as cracks in tarmac, bridges and building facades, but also repairing them” (PwC drones in construction report)
The first iteration of this have already undergone trial runs. Spanish-based architecture firm MuDD has equipped drones with hoses that spray a cement-like substance onto fabric used to construct lightweight structures. Representatives of the firm have marketed this method of drone-facilitated construction as an inexpensive solution to creating temporary shelters with the potential to aid repairs for large structures in modern cities of the future. The Quad-copter sprays a substance called Shotcrete, a type of concrete usually conveyed through a hose and typically requires human operators or a crane to be effectively applied.
The drone aided Shotcrete technique was developed alongside drone companies RCTake-off and Euromair. Researchers at France’s Catholic University of Louvain also worked on the project, with MuDD also engaged in collaborations with Summum engineering, Canyavivia and AKT II.
Although the drone technique is not entirely autonomous, requiring some amount of manual labour in the form of a user piloting the drone and another to hold the hose at ground level, MuDD envisions developing the technology to a point where the entire process is completely automated.
Drone technology looks to be one of the major breakthroughs in the construction industry; however, UK drones leader at PwC Elaine Whyte reiterated her beliefs that those looking to jump onto the trend should proceed with caution. Like many emerging technologies, drone technology is still far from perfect and has a while to go in terms of regulation, industry preparedness and public perception before the perks of autonomous aerial vehicles can be fully realised.
“There are clear disparities in attitudes towards drones between business and the wider public. It is also strikingly clear that the potential of drone technologies is not fully understood. The drone community across industry, government and civil society needs to change the public discourse from one of uncertainties and toys, to one of opportunity and accountability.”