By Troy Dahlin 

The adoption of drone technology has increased rapidly in heavy construction over the last three years, with systems becoming easier to use while providing more data at higher accuracies.

Today, there are more than 1.7 million drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), in use, and 203,000 remote pilots are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Moreover, those numbers are almost certain to increase in the years ahead.

Recent data from The Civil Quarterly (TCQ), a quarterly research report on the current business health of contractors from Dodge Data & Analytics, revealed that the heavy civil sector has widely adopted many advanced tools and digital processes. For example, more than half of contractors said they used drones and ruggedized tablets.

Drones are used in nearly every industry, not just construction. But they are the natural next step in the technological evolution for heavy construction companies, as they offer a cost-effective way to use technology to tackle long-standing needs, such as safely capturing the accurate and robust data needed to make real-time decisions that can make or break a project’s bottom line.

In addition to fast and flexible data collection, drones deliver reduced worker costs, enhanced jobsite safety, and faster surveying and construction time than traditional data capture techniques. But perhaps more than any other benefit, drones enable the collection of improved and more accurate data without disrupting jobsite operations.

There are many opportunities on the modern jobsite where drones are of particular benefit. For example, drones enable heavy construction contractors to capture data from hard-to-reach, potentially hazardous or otherwise inaccessible locations that would be too risky or expensive to capture traditionally.

Heavy construction contractors need solutions that allow them to leverage vast amounts of data to make actionable decisions. Here are a few new ways we’re seeing contractors benefit from drones on their commercial projects.

More accurately tracking progress throughout construction

When it comes to drone data, much of the attention in heavy construction has been quantifying earthwork volumes. This takes the form of pre-bid analysis to ensure correct quantities are known so that optimal designs can be created and efficient haul plans can be implemented.

Drones are then used to track earthwork volumes throughout the construction process to provide feedback on what has been completed and the amount of work remaining to inform project plans and allow for faster replanning cycles.

Processing a drone’s images — known as orthomosaic images — into three-dimensional points on the ground can be combined with three-dimensional points from other collection sources. Those points can be used in computer-aided design (CAD) to create three-dimensional surfaces, contour lines, surface features, three-dimensional models, site progressions documentation, and volumetrics for earthwork calculations.

A worker can capture more data during a 20-minute flight than through a week of traditional terrestrial measuring.

For example, the Leica Aibot SX intelligent aerial surveying solution captures a digital data set more efficiently. Additionally, it adds a fully integrated UAV solution into existing Leica Geosystems surveying and engineering workflows.

The Leica Aibot workflow is based on Leica Geosystem’s trusted product portfolio. It seamlessly integrates with the Leica Infinity software suite to capture, process, merge, store, and analyze data. Leica Aibot skyCAPP is the professional flight execution software supporting all your missions, especially when you need actionable data.

Save money and improve safety as a result of better data 

As a reality capture tool, drones provide the ability to capture an aerial “snapshot” of a project at any time. More data can be captured in a twenty-minute flight than during a week of traditional terrestrial measuring.

Additionally, because the data set is much denser and richer, it allows for a more detailed analysis and improved accuracy for some applications. One of the unexpected benefits is improved client visualization by showing overall site progress against the design, translating into quicker and more complete decision-making at the project management level.

With the economy rebounding, post-COVID construction projects are commencing rapidly, and material prices are at an all-time high, requiring extra attention to optimize the procurement and use of precious and expensive resources.

Jobsites are constantly changing, but using a drone’s orthomosaic images, coupled with the derived point clouds, provides a wealth of information of what materials have been put in the ground and what is remaining.

This can lead to lean procurement management, ensuring what is needed on site is available when needed and stored in the correct location. This is particularly important for paving and utility construction, extending the benefits of drones past simply validating the amount of dirt moved.

It also enables a team to monitor a jobsite to gather intel for progress reporting and stockpile management. For example, operators can use drones to monitor equipment to ensure it is appropriately utilized and take quick action should they find unsafe or out of compliance conditions, further enhancing the job site’s safety.

Better informed decisions to increase efficiency 

After capturing the data, it’s imperative to get the correct data in the hands of the right people on-site so they can make informed decisions on the most efficient way to complete the project.

To overcome, AGTEK has created a suite of tools that allow users to quantify both earthwork and material quantities directly from their phone or tablet, measuring directly against orthophotos, detailed point clouds and digital elevation models (DEMs), putting the data’s power to work in the field.

This provides a feedback loop for the field to the office and back again to merge drone data with design, as-built, and on-site progress updates captured with photos, notes, and machine tracks.

Verify assets and simplify workflow 

Contractors can also use drones to validate and hand over the asset to the owner, helping reduce the time needed with manual approaches. In addition, taking this approach ensures the final product is constructed within specification, eliminating the need for costly fixes.

The goal is to deploy a solution that simplifies the workflow of this process to move it from the realm of the specialist to enabling generalists to take advantage of drone technology and data. This can save both time and money on key projects.

Drones can play an instrumental role in verifying assets in locations where verifying data is particularly challenging, such as urban environments or heavily canopied construction sites.

For example, the Leica Aibot CX aerial digitization solution allows users to easily compare as-designed and as-built. This enables a transparent view of a site’s progression at every step of the project lifecycle of planning, design, construction and hand-over.

Solutions today are making jobsites safer while saving contractors money. Yet, despite their proliferation, many contractors are unaware of the profound benefits drones bring to the modern jobsite.

Many construction companies initially operated drones with the intent of always having them on hand at a site. However, they work best when they are not a 24/7, anywhere, anytime tool.

Over time, companies’ plans for drones evolved into having a dedicated team of professionals who travel from site to site where their drone operating services are needed.

Technology today should be the professional partner contractors deploy to save time and money, guarantee accurate data and drive projects forward. When implemented correctly, they provide another powerful tool in contractors’ arsenals.


Troy Dahlin is vice president, heavy construction segment, US/CAN of Leica Geosystems, part of Hexagon. For more information, please visit www.leica-geosystems.com. 

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