December 1, 2015 by JEAN BURROWS
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane – it’s a construction drone!
Drones are coming to the construction industry and experts concur that they soon will be a common tool on jobsites.
The cost of drones (also known as unmanned air vehicles or UAVs) is dropping as more manufacturers are moving into the commercial market – which falls between the hobby models you buy in retail stores and those built to military specs.
Canada is ahead of the curve in North America, at least in terms of regulation. While the U.S. Federal Aviation Agency does not permit the use of drones for commercial purposes, in 2014 Transport Canada revised regulations for use of three classes of drones – less than two kg, 2.1 to 25 kg, and more than 25 kg (see Right Stuff below).
“The (sales) curve is just starting to go up, it will be a pretty vertical market,” says Tom Range who heads GeoShack’s newly formed North American Imaging Group. The company launched the group in June, in response to customer demand. Its mandate is to supply and support UAVs, mobile mapping, and imaging solutions. “Drones are already being used in Canada for industrial purposes and we have an established customer base in Canada,” Range says. “We plan to build on that.”
“Within the construction industry, there are a number of different applications that can benefit from the collection of aerial images and data,” says Andrea Sangster, senior marketing manager of Aeryon Labs. Inc., a UAV manufacturer based in Waterloo, Ont. “They include site surveying and planning, construction documentation, safety and inspection, environmental reporting, lead line/cable delivery and positional marking.”
Data captured by a drone’s camera can be exported in common software formats such as Autodesk, GIS systems, Wavefront, 3DS, Google Earth and PDF to create 3D digital models, autonomous GPS wave points, georeferenced surveys, digital elevation models, 4K high resolution model inspections and site plans and models. They can also be used to perform volume and planning calculations and thermal calculations.
Drones can be programed to fly a consistent path at a consistent height to ensure a consistent data set, without the human error that often creeps into data collection.
Safety is another important element of drone use. “A huge benefit in the construction industry is that drones can remove danger from the human element – not having to send employees into unsafe environments for data collection or inspections,” says Adam Sax, president of The Sky Guys, an Oakville, Ont. firm that started its professional UAV business last year.
While drones clearly have a role to play on construction sites, contractors need to consider whether they actually need to own the equipment or whether they’d be better served using a service provider on an as-needed basis.
“Although companies may be interested in doing it in-house, they are finding that the requirements are more complex than they realized,” says Sax. “Combined with the cost of equipment and liability insurance, the timeline to obtain permits, etc., it can be very expensive to insure and have a fully trained team.”
“A lot of technology has yet to come to fruition,” says Matt Nicholls, editor of Helicopters Magazine. “Right now, for example, flight time is limited by the battery charge time.” The technology is evolving quickly, and early adopters may run the risk of investing in equipment that becomes outdated before the return on investment is realized.
“Built-in fail-safes and other safety features will become standard (some could become mandatory) as the technology and capabilities advance,” says Sangster. That said, the cost for a mapping system drone is “right in the range that contractors would be paying for other mapping, data collection, and layout tools,” says Range.
Staff training and gear maintenance costs also have to be considered. “We train our customers to use our UAVs,” says Sangster. “(And) there are organizations that offer UAV training for a number of different systems. Some will also offer aviation ground school so that pilots can learn more about aviation and airspace regulations.”
There are also post-secondary institutions that offer UAV training/certification programs within their curriculum.
Transport Canada requires a Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC) for most commercial drone use. SFOC applications are assessed on all aspects of the proposed UAV operations, including the experience and qualifications of the applicant and the operator, the nature and complexity of the proposed operations, the type and size of the UAV and the UAV’s command and control system.
It can take weeks to process SFOC applications, which adds a step to the planning process, although subsequent applications may take less time. A service provider, however, may have an unrestricted planning certificate so it can be more nimble in responding to project needs. These certificates are usually issued based on a safe operating record, which obviously takes time to establish.
“Skilled operators are able to deliver the best possible results and reduce the risk of damage or injury,” says Paul Baur, marketing and business development manager for K2i Unmanned Systems, based in Vancouver, B.C.
Liability insurance costs are also part of the financial equation, unless you are using a service provider that carries its own aviation insurance. Drone insurance packages are now offered in Canada by Zurich Canada as well as through specialist aviation insurers.
Whatever your decision – whether to invest in the technology yourself or hire a service provider – it’s clear that the use of drones for commercial purposes is growing exponentially. In a March 2015 article, the Globe and Mail reported that Transport Canada issued 1,672 permits for commercial drone applications in 2014, up from 66 in 2010.
The numbers connected to the Canadian construction industry have been harder to determine, along with other details about drone use. Canadian Construction Innovations (CCInovations) has recently wrapped up one piece of research and the resulting publication, The Use of Drones in Canadian Construction, is available through www.ccinnovations.ca.
“It’s not just a phase or a fad – drones will become another business tool like telephones and computers to use when the application calls for it,” says Sax.
Here is a brief rundown of Transport Canada requirements for drone operators (more information is available at www.tc.gc.ca/eng/civilaviation/standards/standards-4179.html).
The easiest regulation, which covers all sizes of drones, is that they must be operated safely. This requires the operator to:
For commercial applications, operators of UAVs between 2.1 and 25 kg that meet exemption requirements do not need permission to fly. If you think that that sounds easy, consider that there are 58 conditions in the areas of flight conditions, pilot training, UAV system, and reporting requirements that must be met to gain the exemption.
A special flight operations certificate (SFOC) is required if the operator cannot meet the exem
ption requirements for UAVs between 2.1 and 25 kg, or if the UAV weighs more than 25 kg.
There are a number of SFOC application processes depending on the nature and use of the UAV. The more complex and risky the proposed operation, the more thorough and onerous the application process.