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How the Construction Industry is Leveraging Drones to Improve BIM Output

Competition in the construction industry is fierce. Business Information Modeling (BIM) software has been around for a while, but savvy engineers, architects and contractors are now discovering the power of combining BIM with drone technology to get a leg up. BIM uses a wealth of data gathered in various ways to accurately create a 3D model of a project, significantly streamlining the preparation and ongoing monitoring phases, and reducing costs. However, the key to effectively using BIM is gathering accurate data from mapping tools, Google Earth and other resources. No source provides more precise data, including aerial imagery and digital elevation, however, than drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles are revolutionizing the construction and engineering fields. PwC estimates the value of labor and services that will be replaced by drones at $127.3 billion. More than one-third of that is from infrastructure and construction companies. How are drones being used? Consider how leveraging drones can improve your BIM output.

Precision at its Best

One of the key benefits of drone usage is precision. The degree of accuracy in the data is phenomenal, better than any other method. Drones provide a controllable, repeatable process not rivaled by manual techniques. Here’s how it works. A flight path can be programmed into a mapping application such as DroneDeploy, so that it automatically surveys the same area each day. While in the air, the drone takes hundreds of images. Those images are sent to the cloud and incorporated into BIM software to create a 3D image. The 3D image is overlaid on the original CAD designs to look for problems and inconsistencies. As the project moves forward, construction crews can catch mistakes quickly, such as pipes or trenches that were not dug correctly. Catching these inconsistencies upfront saves money and timeline setbacks, advantages for both contractors and their clients.

Drones can survey a construction site in a “lawnmower”, or criss-cross, pattern, creating data for every square inch. Compare that precision to traditional mapping techniques that yielded a data point every 30 or 40 feet. There’s no comparison.  Data can be collected daily, if necessary. “Daily scanning allows you to spot problems as they happen so you can either fix it or, if it’s not a big deal, model it for the next guy who comes so he won’t make a mistake”, according to a Robotics Trends interview.

“Daily scanning allows you to spot problems as they happen so you can either fix it or, if it’s not a big deal, model it for the next guy who comes so he won’t make a mistake”

Read the entire interview with Drone maker 3DR and learn about three specific construction mistakes that were identified and fixed with drone and BIM technology.

Why the Construction Industry is “In Love with Drones”

Fortune magazine described the construction industry as “in love with drones.” Why? “Intelligence [gathered by drones] allows construction companies to more efficiently deploy resources around a job site, minimize potential issues, trim costs, and limit delays,” explained Fortune. Drones are being used in a variety of ways, including inspections, the movement of materials and surveillance. Drones, using 4K UHD cameras with infrared capability, have replaced the need to keep construction sites lit up at night for security reasons. Drones enable contractors to keep watch 24 hours-a-day, use less light and save on energy costs. Instead of assembling cumbersome cranes to move materials from one level to another, construction companies are using drones.


[ctt template=”5″ link=”aE2WO” via=”yes” ]At the click of a button, you can visualize window or sunlight placement in BIM software, based on data from #drone imagery. @dronegenuity[/ctt]

Here are five reasons the construction industry is in love with drones.

Less Wasted Materials

The American Institute of Architects estimates that building waste makes up 25 to 40 percent of American’s garbage. Total waste is thought to be as high as $160 billion a year. The construction industry consumes about 50 percent of global steel production and three billion tons of raw materials. Even small efficiencies can translate into billions of dollars in savings. BIM capabilities allow companies to precisely measure raw materials, from the amount of fill dirt and lumber needed before the project begins to the intricate details like how much electrical wiring will be required.

A More Productive Workforce

Think of drones as tools that make your existing workforce more productive. In a NPR interview, one surveying team estimated it could increase worker productivity by three to five times with the help of drones. “Modern contracting practices demand cheaper and more frequent surveying,” explained the article. In addition to speeding up the pace, drones can get into hard-to-reach places or places that might be unsafe for humans. Drones shouldn’t be viewed as devices that replace human jobs. Instead, they are devices that should be incorporated into the workflow to streamline existing processes by making your workforce more efficient.

A Collaborative Process

The combination of BIM and drone usage streamlines many aspects of the construction process. One huge way is simple collaboration between teams. BIM software creates a “shared” model, allowing each building discipline to make notes that are seen by the rest of the teams and departments. The need to rework drawings or create duplicates is eliminated. Each shared object is attached to a database. As new data is collected and construction specs evolve, the model quickly updates, giving all team members real-time access to the latest 3D version.

Cost Savings

Cost savings come in many forms, but let’s just focus on the cost of aerial imaging. It has been traditionally done with helicopters, satellites or LiDar maps. However, these methods were either not precise enough, difficult to scale, subject to human error or very costly. Drones can be operated much cheaper than a manned aircraft. Because of the significant cost savings, data can be gathered more frequently, increasing its accuracy even more. The cost of renting a helicopter can be anywhere from $800 to $2,000 an hour. And, that’s without any equipment. Professional equipment that mounts to the top of the helicopter can be anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 per day. Drones get the aerial imaging and collect precise data at a fraction of the cost.

Simulation and Planning

Energy efficiency is a top priority for any building project. The Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency estimates that American businesses could save $169 billion a year if the commission meets its goal of doubling energy productivity by 2030. Architects and contractors that can meet client energy expectations have a huge advantage over the competition. How do drones and BIM software come into play? Simulation tools associated with BIM software offer designers an efficient means of calculating building energy performance. Drones gather precise intelligence that combine with BIM software that apply best practices and physics to help engineers. For example, at the click of a button, engineers can visualize window or sunlight placement so that the most sunlight enters a building, based on data collected from drone photography. They can even simulate sunlight based on time of day or season. Capabilities vary based on the type of BIM software used. However, it all starts with accurate intelligence gathered by a drone.

Research Points to an Increase in Commercial Drone Use

ConstructionWorkZone referred to 2015 as a “transitional year” for drone use and predicted 2016 as a “break out” year for commercial drone use. Were they right? We’ll have to wait for 2016 numbers. However, the FAA estimates the sales of commercial drones will rise to 2.7 million, up from just 600,000 by 2020. The total drone industry will be worth $127 billion by 2020.

PwC says drone solutions are best suited for sectors that require high quality data, businesses that manage assets dispersed over big areas, large-scale capital projects and infrastructure maintenance, all accurate descriptions of projects handled by construction and engineering firms. Drone usage benefits contractors and their clients. Investing in and using this technology now will put your company ahead of the competition.

About the Author

Adam Shore

Adam is a Central Florida alum who recently left the Orlando area to relocate to Denver, where he enjoys shooting aerial photography of the Rocky Mountains. And to ski. He is a member of the AMA and was been a drone photographer since the early days of the industry. Follow him @dronegenuity.