By Chad Clinehens

It’s amazing how the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, has changed the world of surveying and civil engineering. These machines now give us much easier access to job sites and offer amazing perspectives on our projects. As a civil engineer who also spent time in marketing, I appreciate drones even more. 

The high-quality video drones can get today equates to what would have cost tens of thousands of dollars in video equipment and set up costs to get similar footage 20 years ago. Beyond amazing video footage, drones can aid in surveying job sites, offering benefits in safety, speed, and budget. We’ve seen the rapidly expanding power of drones in our Engineering Drone Video of the Year (EDVY) contest. Launched in 2018, this contest has significantly grown in popularity. This year, the number of videos entered was up 209 percent over 2020. More impressively, the number of votes in the contest was up 80 percent over last year with over 14,300 votes from 71 countries. The finalists included the “Bois d’Arc” Lake Project” by Freese and Nichols; “Interstate 74 Bridge Corridor” by IMEG Corp; and the winner “After the Mudslide” by Reid Hu. 

The evolution of drones in the AEC industry has been dramatic. However, some may argue the adoption lags the advancements. This industry does tend to be slow to adopt new technology. Not everyone is like this, but many firms struggle with this because it requires change. Technology is one of those areas of running a business that’s certain— it’s constantly changing. Some firm leaders see technology as a necessary evil, something that they begrudgingly must embrace even if they don’t fully understand what it is or how it works. Other firm leaders are technophiles who must have all the up-to-the minute gadgets and gizmos whether they help them do their jobs or not. Regardless of where you fall on the technology “love-hate” spectrum, technology is undoubtedly something you use and deal with every single day. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you consider investing in any kind of new technology:

A monetary ROI doesn’t always have to be clear at the onset.  Don’t let anyone tell you that every technology expenditure must be proven to have a favorable ROI before you try it. You will never know with most of these things how they can affect every single aspect of your business. Some— like drones— could conceivably be the one thing that sets your firm apart or gives you a competitive edge. Others, like software and security investments, may be what saves you from a malware attack that could shut your production down for days or even weeks. Many firms underinvest in technology, but there are some that overinvest compared to their peers. Those firms are the ones that had the easiest and most efficient transition when COVID hit last year. I’d like to meet anyone who considered a pandemic in their ROI calculations on IT investments prior to 2020. 

Technology investments help with recruiting and retention; not a common association, but technology can drive significant benefits for people. It can help you attract and keep the best people by giving them the tools that they want and expect. Everyone wants to learn— especially younger people. They don’t want to become obsolete. This means you need to give them the tools to do the best they can do as efficiently as possible. And some people want to push the limits. They want to try things that haven’t been done before. These are some of your smartest people. Keep them around by having an IT budget that provides them with these tools.

Efficiency is complex.  Relating to the first point, ROI is not always crystal clear when it comes to technological investments, especially when trying to measure efficiency over the long run. Having robust servers, enough bandwidth, well-designed intranets, cloud document storage, real-time access to internal data, and the people and training to make all of this work properly is essential to efficiency. When considering the significant investment in expanding your surveying business with drone technology, you’ve got to think about all the efficiencies such an investment can possibly empower, beyond just labor savings. 

Many years of Zweig Group research has shown that technological investments, or investments in IT, are one of the top three drivers of growth for AEC firms. Many leaders find that surprising because they view IT as overhead. That immediately causes IT to be viewed as a cost instead of an investment. Drone technology is just one of those investments that has allowed some firms to transcend into a realm where competitors are scarce. It is that realm where they realize that the ROI on the investment goes beyond the obvious dollar savings. It is a technology that they can use to visualize projects and the future in a new way. View technology as an investment instead of a cost, and your perspective can change significantly, empowering extraordinary business growth.

Chad Clinehens, P.E., is Zweig Group’s president and CEO. Contact him at