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How unpiloted systems are changing the landscape for civil and structural engineers

How unpiloted systems are changing the landscape for civil and structural engineers

By Josh Rayburn

Unpiloted systems continue transforming civil and structural engineering by improving efficiency, accuracy, and safety while empowering civil and structural engineers to control costs.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have captured much of the conversation. However, they are just one part of the equation.

The construction industry is constantly looking for solutions to increase efficiency. As those conversations evolve, finding new ways to deploy unpiloted systems and autonomous reality capture, including the increased use of robotics, must be a part of that conversation.

While professionals in any field often stick to the methods that have worked in the past, drones and unpiloted systems showed potential from their introduction, even if they were slow to catch on initially. Some users expressed concerns about the complexity of the solutions, the difficulty of learning to operate them, and the upfront cost of purchasing the technology.

While relying on traditional approaches might sometimes be effective, civil and structural engineers can innovate and rethink their work. Drones have revolutionized the art of gathering jobsite data, especially as unpiloted systems have become more powerful, easier to use and more affordable, driving people to embrace technology.

In the process, these new solutions are helping to create a safer job site for everyone.

Autonomy adds another layer.

Modern unpiloted systems include robotics with sensors that can be deployed on a schedule and a specific path. At a certain time of the day, the system will activate the sensors and travel that path.

This eliminates the potential introduction of human error, ensuring that a task happens as expected.

The sensor data will be transmitted to an office on the same property or a thousand miles away, allowing engineers to monitor the jobsite without being on-site.

The real benefit of unpiloted systems is their unprecedented insight and real-time data. Civil and structural engineers rely on data when making critical decisions on the jobsite, and it’s challenging, if not impossible, to make informed choices quickly when it might take days for a crew to schedule a time to survey a location.

Autonomous reality capture technology has grown in importance in construction and renovation. Now, engineers can pull out a tablet, operate an unpiloted system, and gain instantaneous feedback.

The data and scans obtained through this technology are critical to understanding an area’s architecture and infrastructure and how it changes over time.

Modern jobs need a holistic view of the seen and unseen.

No part of a jobsite exists in a silo.

When considering infrastructure, the visible portion is just one part of the equation. Whether underground infrastructure, such as utilities, or hard-to-reach portions of a bridge, the inaccessible and out-of-sight portions are just as critical as those in view.

Engineers can’t forgo an inspection of a location simply because it is hard to access. Unpiloted systems give teams an advantage, allowing them to navigate underground and otherwise inaccessible infrastructure.

Unmanned systems can collect data in smaller spaces, more dangerous areas, or places humans don’t need to go to for safety reasons. Systems such as mobile scanning modules for robotics and other unpiloted systems give teams solutions to capture the data they need to make decisions based on accurate and precise data.

Eliminate the need for specialized equipment.

Consider a bridge inspection. Before unpiloted systems, crews might need specialized rigging and specialized equipment to collect details from multiple points of view, not to mention the potential lane closures and burden placed on the public.

This process was complicated, time-consuming, and expensive; crews might have spent as much time setting up and taking down their equipment as inspecting the bridge. If the team missed a detail or needed to verify their data, they would need to return to the site and repeat the process, which would only add time and cost to the project, potentially impacting the bottom line.

Using a drone eliminates the need for specialized rigging and specialized equipment. Now, if a crew misses a detail, the team can return and quickly capture new data, but considering the real-time window into captured data, the need to return is often minimal. Users know immediately whether they have captured every bit of information they need.

Over the last couple of years, teams have learned to fully integrate and unify the data from the various unmanned systems they have deployed and leverage this data across an entire project. The process works for indoor and outdoor projects.

To give this holistic view of a project, teams could combine an unmanned system flying along the tower and the inner side of a bridge with an unmanned robotic system traversing the inside. Unpiloted systems often use a live camera view to navigate a structure and collect point cloud data.

The revolution started with hobby drones.

Drones are ubiquitous today; no one thinks twice about seeing them in action—from hobbyists in the local park to Hollywood productions to news articles discussing their potential use in delivering retailers’ packages.

Interestingly, the deployment of drones on the construction site began, at least in part, with the proliferation of hobby drones. Many of the powerful unmanned systems, even the higher-end models, work similarly to hobby drones.

The key difference is that the professional-grade systems have additional sensors and features that make them even more beneficial and practical for use on the modern jobsite.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, as of February 2024, 781,781 drones were registered in the country, including 375,226 commercial drones. However, the actual number in use is undoubtedly higher, and it will only increase in the years ahead.

The good news is that users are already familiar with drones, making it easier for firms to recruit drone operators. Many operators will say they are familiar with drones because they used a hobbyist version; maybe they used it during their kids’ soccer games or to take pictures for fun.

Because they’re already comfortable with the idea of a drone and have played around with the technology, they can quickly understand its practical application on the jobsite for inspections. This also limits some of the time employees need to gain familiarity.

Professionals still use hobbyist-style drones and unmanned systems on the jobsite. While they perform tasks admirably, they lack some features of professional-grade drones, such as advanced obstacle avoidance and the ability to scan a building or location autonomously.

An autonomous flying laser sensor makes scanning and capturing a building from the air easier. It can reach hard-to-access areas like rooftops and façades with accuracy and speed.

Understand the return on investment.

Potential users’ first thoughts when considering drones or other unpiloted systems often center on the price point. Even if they see the need for such a tool, they mistakenly see the expense as unnecessary.

While professional-level drones are more expensive than hobby drones, the features and the upside far make up for the price difference. The same argument can be made for any tool on the jobsite.

Users should first consider the high-resolution photogrammetry and LiDAR capabilities. Then, they should consider the simplicity of their operation.

Over the last eight-to-10 years, the industry has seen a shift in how many people have flocked toward reality capture and unmanned systems. As a result, it’s driven the price down as the tools have become easier to use.

Additionally, despite their advanced capabilities, they are often controlled by devices people carry daily, such as tablets and mobile phones, allowing users to leverage the technology and conclude they are comfortable using it within a few hours.

As a result, most users will be up and running on the jobsite in a business day or less. Measuring the return on investment requires comparing what it formerly cost to gather data to what it takes now, with a particular focus on the level of detail modern solutions deliver.

Additionally, when considering the difficulty many organizations have in recruiting and retaining talent, these solutions allow them to accomplish more with less, further cutting down their expenses. In an era of increased costs, the initial investment will pay dividends in the long run.

Consider the team’s safety.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to overlook the human side of the industry. However, this is one area where everyone on the jobsite has a role and the power to make a difference.

As Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows, the industry is dangerous enough.

To succeed, civil and structural engineers must prioritize employee safety and well-being. Effective solutions save money and prioritize team well-being.

The industry already has the technology to safeguard its most important asset: its workers. The good news is that this technology doesn’t necessitate settling; it provides more insight and captures more data while improving jobsite safety.

Making sure that the team is working in the correct place and performing the right tasks is critical for reducing discrepancies and errors. These mistakes often lead to rework, resulting in financial losses for the company. Unnecessary rework can also increase the chances of mishaps, but technology can help improve safety and be a game-changer.

What’s next for unpiloted systems?

A solution is only viable if it helps an organization achieve its business objectives.

While unpiloted systems have already proven themselves in construction, helping teams monitor progress more accurately and quickly, the potential applications are as exciting as today’s uses. Users have become comfortable with this technology, making it easier for companies to invest because they see the practical applications and understand the return on investment.

This is especially true when considering the younger generation entering the industry. It’s rapidly becoming second nature for younger employees to pick up one of these solutions and start using it.

As conversations on maximizing projects’ budgets and return on investment continue, unpiloted systems must be part of the conversation. In some ways, pondering what’s next for unpiloted systems is only limited by imagination.

Drones will continue to go anywhere data is needed.

A few likely applications to emerge in the coming years are increased deployment of drones in indoor settings and on watercraft and further integration of the many unpiloted systems on the job site.

Additionally, reality capture can be used on almost any robotic system. APIs—or Application Programming Interfaces — enable two applications to communicate with one another, allowing these sensors to integrate into other software solutions and operations.

Consider a team making repairs to a building’s façade. The drone operator could scan the building and send the information to an on-site 3D printer, which immediately prints a replacement for a section of the façade.

Unpiloted systems should provide peace of mind.

Unpiloted systems enable teams to have multiple capabilities to better understand the project before them and eliminate the need to jump to conclusions because accurate data is too hard to gather.

Knowing that a sensor is autonomously collecting data should give civil and structural engineers peace of mind; they know it’s gathering what they need and performing the task accurately. Whether standing 1,000 feet away, a mile away, or halfway around the world, this visual component allows a team to see what’s happening in that moment.

Considering that this technology is still relatively new, having only emerged in the past 10 or 15 years, it’s remarkable how quickly the industry has progressed. The price point has lowered, these tools are easier to use than ever, and they are lighter and smaller, allowing them to access an increasing number of places.

The best days of unpiloted systems are ahead, and the industry will continue to grow because of the ability to use these devices in and around infrastructure.

Civil and structural engineers should not passively watch the industry evolve but actively shape the future. New approaches to long-standing challenges are nothing to fear, and the debate over technology should not paralyze companies.

Sometimes, the solutions needed are right before us, and embracing technology may sound like a simple solution, but it can have a huge impact. Companies must adopt current technology, build a foundation for their industry’s future and help make job sites safer, more efficient and better for everyone.

That’s a goal that everyone can stand behind.

Josh Rayburn is business manager, US & CAN, over reality capture for Leica Geosystems. For more information, please visit www.leica-geosystems.com.