Drones in Construction: Drone Arrival at Chicago Build 2019 Expo

Helen Pukszta & Steve Akins at Chicago Build 2019 Expo at McCormick Place

Drone Arrival’s Steve Akins and Helen Pukszta presented at Chicago Build 2019 Expo — the leading and largest construction show covering all sectors of the construction, design & real estate industry — on “Drones on a Mission to Improve Construction Processes and Outcomes.”

At this year’s exceptional Chicago Build at McCormick Place, there were a few great sessions that focused on targeted applications of UAS in construction. Steve and Helen painted a broader and introductory picture for the audience of the BIM and Digital Construction Summit on:

  • Why drones and why now;
  • The many uses of drones in construction;
  • Future directions for commercial UAS; and
  • How to begin a drone program now.

Contact us for a free PDF copy of the presentation, or to find out more.


Thank you so much for this introduction. Good afternoon and welcome! I’m Helen Pukszta, president and co-founder of Drone Arrival Incorporated. With me is the other co-founder of the company, Steve Akins, who is also the chief technology officer and chief marketing officer. As you can see, Steve managed to bring one of his favorite drone toys today, and you’re welcome to take a look at it afterwards.

One of the reasons we’re here today is because Drone Arrival is a proud member of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce, a local organization in Chicago that is an event partner for Chicago Build 2019.

Today we’re going to be talking about drones, and specifically using drones to improve processes and outcomes in construction. We designed these slides to be packed with information that is useful to this audience. At the same time, given the time constraints, we’re going to be touching on the most salient and key takeaways. And for the rest of it, or course I understand the presentations is going to be available afterwards. We do have a few printed copies of it if you’d like to pick up a copy after the presentation. We also have copies of a report I wrote earlier this year for Cutter Consortium. That report takes a pretty comprehensive look at the current state of drone technology and drone regulations for both commercial as well as public sectors.

So why drones, and why now? Essentially, there are two reason for why drones are a topic for today’s conference. One is the technology itself, and the other one is regulations. Commercial drones are really consumer drones having recently become more sophisticated, more capable, less expensive, and those drones are really the basis for today’s commercial drones. People tend to think it’s the military drones that get downsized but that’s not really the case.

So these are aircraft that are powered by inexpensive rechargeable batteries. They can be controlled with a smartphone or any other smart device. They’re capable of carrying payload that enables businesses to conduct missions to gather data and information that is useful to them. There are technologies that have to do with thermal, LIDAR, optical, multispectral, hyperspectral, and other sensors that are getting smaller in size, weigh less, and essentially you can attach them to a drone and create data and information that only a few years ago would not have been feasible, and certainly not at the price point that they are available today. Technology such as Real Time Kinematic used on a drone can produce results that are within a centimeter-level accuracy.

So the other reason we are here presenting on commercial use of drones is that only three years ago the FAA issued the much-anticipated at the time Part 107 regulations. These regulations stipulate that essentially anyone who passes the multiple-choice knowledge test for the Part 107 certificate may fly a drone commercially. It was possible before 2016, however, the hurdles were so high that it was really impractical for most business cases.

To be sure, Part 107 still stipulates a number of restrictions and most of them are listed here. But even within the framework of those restrictions there’s a lot that drones can do for business. The other takeaway is that there’s a waiver system in place where organizations, many of them routinely, are applying for and receiving waivers to fly drones, for example at night time or beyond the visual line of sight. And one thing you may know is that today the FAA does not allow operations of drones if you can’t see it within your eyesight. Unless you have the waiver. The other expectation is that many of these regulations are going to be melting away and there are already discussions within the regulatory bodies that imply that many changes are forthcoming.

So how are drones used in construction today? According to a 2018 survey by DroneDeploy, construction is the industry with the fastest-growing rate of adoption in drone technology. You know, the numbers are still pretty low so though it’s an impressive percentage, I think the estimate is about 10 percent of businesses small and large have tried incorporating drones into their operations.

So this is not surprising that construction would be leading the way. The architecture, engineering, and construction sector in general, globally, has had a productivity rate of about 1 percent, and that’s about over the last few decades. When you compare this with the rest of industries that average at about three to four percent, you can see that there’s a lot of room to create value. Drones are one tool that helps create that value, and automation in general is going to step in. So it’s not surprising at all that construction is embracing this new technology.

Here are some examples of how drones are being used in construction today. Each of these examples deserves at least 20 minutes if not more, and we can provide more information afterwards. But some highlights include construction surveys, as-built surveys, orthomosaic maps that are orthorectified and at the map-level quality. There are also 3D models that you can create. Earthwork estimation, cut-and-fill analysis, stockpile measurement and monitoring, and so forth. And I expect that many of you have your own examples of how you’ve used drones, and we’d love to hear about this, both success stories and any challenges that you may have had.

A couple of examples from the industry. All of these are publicly available information, so we’re not disclosing anything proprietary. Vista Sand, for example, started using drones in 2015. By measuring their stockpile volumes weekly, they are saving up to 30 percent on the fuel used to run their sand dryer. Previously before drones, surveyors could deliver data on the quarry’s 40 acres in about five days. The drone operation flies an automated mission in about 15 minutes, and that’s without the requirement to stop production to complete that survey.

Another example is Skanska, which I believe is the world’s fifth largest construction company. They discovered that, unlike traditional aerial photography, drones provide more detailed information, are quicker and often less expensive. They can fly into compact and challenging spaces and reduce workers’ reliance on ladders and scissor lifts, and essentially improve safety.

Doxel is a maker of autonomous robots and artificial intelligence and they’re targeting specifically the construction industry. They teamed up with Kaiser Permanente on a project in California for a medical office building. They use a combination of drones that fly over the construction sites and robots that are roaming the interior of structures at the end of each workday to capture photos and lidar scans of the entire project. They process the data with the company’s proprietary artificial intelligence, which can detect discrepancies between the building information model and daily as-built information. Kaiser reported that on this project the labor productivity gains were 38 percent across all trades, and they delivered the project 11 percent under budget.

So that’s today’s use of drones, and we wanted to share some of the future directions and what’s coming. We think that that drone systems will continue on a rapid innovation cycle with real-time intelligence, analytics, and tighter integration into operations and processes. And it’s really that integration that is key to capturing value from this new technology.

We anticipate that more processing will be pushed further upstream on board the drone itself, so key insights, key decision points are going to happen during the mission itself as opposed to post-processing a few days afterwards.

We see a natural and increasing convergence with robotics, artificial intelligence, internet of things, and autonomous operations in general, and today’s use of drones in construction really sets the stage for this convergence.

As many of you know, you can fly automated missions today. Pilot in command is still required according to regulations to oversee that operation, but we are looking forward to a world of autonomous drones. These are drones that require little or no human intervention and essentially will complete their mission on their own and provide their insights. It will no longer be a world of telling the drone what to capture. It’s going to be the technology itself that will be, on a proactive basis, telling you what to look at.

So here are some of the developments that are currently in the works. For example, traffic management system. Imagine a sky full of drones, including your Amazon delivery in an urban area. You would expect some rules to be in place, rules of the road, or rules of the skies so to speak, to ensure that there’s safety of those operations.

None of these developments are really particularly challenging in terms of the technology itself. It is the frameworks, it is the standards, it is the agreement on the set of rules that everybody’s going to follow that we are looking forward to. And as you may anticipate, the FAA is heavily involved in all of these. Essentially, these are the things that will bring us to the autonomous world of drones.

So how do you begin a drone program within your own organization? I anticipate many of you have already done so. But here are tips for those of you who haven’t. As with any new and transformative technology, and we do believe drones to be a transformative technology, you should ask the following questions.

The first one is what is it that this technology enables you to do that you are not able to accomplish today? These may be things that you perhaps haven’t even thought about because, well, there’s no technology to enable it. If you come up with good answers to that question, you really are going to have some game changers, something you should aggressively pursue in terms of applications of drones for you at your organization.

The other question is, within the scope of what you do today, what are some of the areas where drones can help you accomplish your activities, your tasks more safely, more accurately, more efficiently?

And don’t forget your competitors and suppliers. Be mindful of what they are doing, plug into their processes, and be sure you’re not left behind or left at a disadvantage.

What to focus on? Look for targeted, proof-of-concept applications that solve specific problems and ideally produce bottom-line results. Focus on the data is important, but look beyond that, looking for intelligent, actionable information that can also be integrated with BIM and VDC and any other systems you may be using.

Look for applications that would position you for the long term. For example, collecting volumes of data may enable you to teach your artificial intelligence applications down the line with the volumes of data you are collecting. Data is very valuable in the AI world.

The last point is very important. Attending to the operational aspects of the drone program. At the very least, you do need your standard operating procedures to assure safety and address any liability issues, and so forth. So I cannot stress enough the importance of that. Drones are aircrafts and aviation safety is paramount.

Here is a simplified version of different ways to implement your drone program. One is, you can buy and maintain your own fleet of drones, develop your in-house pilots who pass the Part 107 test and acquire this certification. This option gives you a good control of the program and opportunity to innovate more flexibly. You can iterate your applications, your use cases, until you come up with the winning ones, the ones that you really want to pursue and further scale up. But once you do start scaling up, this can be a large investment in terms of equipment, in terms of processes, and people.

Another option that exists is to rent or lease your drones. So it’s very similar to the first option, but this allows you to essentially not have to deal with equipment obsolescence, and there’s a smaller cost up-front. It’s a sort of a decision like between buying and leasing a car. Each have their place. It’s whatever fits your business model and what you want to accomplish.

And of course the third option is just to outsource it all. You can partner with a third-party provider who can bring their drones, who can bring their pilots, their operating procedures, their processes, and their experience, and you can leverage that. In the long term, the cost may be higher per mission and per deliverable, but this is a viable option that many organizations are pursuing. There you go. You may question my ability to pilot a drone if I can’t pilot a PowerPoint presentation.

I wanted to leave you with two thoughts on business drivers for adopting drones. Essentially, competitive theory and our experience and common sense tell us that any innovation that adds accuracy, effectiveness, or productivity, with a benefit that is higher than its cost, eventually becomes a competitive necessity. We do think that drones are on their way to become such a competitive necessity.

It is important to build a foundational capability, where you benefit from drones today but also you are positioned for the future and you can adapt to the technological advancements, regulatory changes, and competitive pressures.

So drones are here today. It’s a technology that is available, and it is up to you how you will take advantage of it.