Saturday, December 10, 2016

Drones in Construction

Commercial drone of the type used on building projects to perform aerial imaging (photo by ZullyC3P licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license versions 4.0, 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, and 1.0.)
The latest Willamette Valley Chapter CSI chapter meeting featured two presentations about the increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicle (aka “UAVs” or “drones”) in the construction industry. Justin Schoenberg of Essex Construction described the time and cost-saving benefits of using drones in construction projects for builders, property owners, facility managers, land surveyors, architects, and engineers. Mark Kannen of Hershner Hunter LLP addressed the still-evolving legal milieu that surrounds their proliferation, not only for construction-related purposes but generally as well. Both Justin and Mark provided a fascinating glimpse into a burgeoning technology that is coming into its own. 

Use in Construction
Justin joined Essex Construction a while back as a project superintendent and now works in project management. He brought with him to Essex years of experience as a RC model aircraft hobbyist, primarily building and flying helicopters and quadcopters. He’s now putting that expertise to use for the benefit of Essex projects. 

Although I had some familiarity with the capabilities and benefits of using aerial drones on construction projects, I was still surprised by Justin’s description of how sophisticated the associated applications have become. He used several Essex Construction projects to illustrate his points, including The Orchard Crossing student housing project in Eugene, the Roseburg National Guard Armory, and The Boathouse in Portland. In each instance, drones provided valuable information beneficial to the project team, quickly and economically, while providing perspectives only aircraft can provide. Their ability to efficiently record complex imagery supports a diverse range practical functions, which can include the following: 
  • Accurate site mapping
  • Conversion of sensor data into 3D computer models
  • Capturing of views from upper floor levels of future buildings (accurate to within a foot of elevation) for use during design or marketing of the property
  • Precise volumetric measurement (i.e. volumes of excavation)
  • Frequent and economical tracking of construction progress
  • Effective organization and deployment of on-site resources
  • Monitoring of worksite safety 
  • Documentation of as-built conditions, including highly accurate recording of systems ultimately buried within the completed work
Manned aircraft, either fixed or rotary-winged, are simply too expensive to repeatedly use on most construction projects. Because drones are far less costly, their use has mushroomed. This proliferation is in part due to improvements in camera technology and computer software, which have made the deployment of smaller and inexpensive drones practical for the uses listed above. 

Today’s sophisticated drones are capable of fully automated flight, with waypoint-to-waypoint programming. Users can also operate drones manually, often by means of first-person view video piloting. 

Justin brought in an assortment of his drones to display at the meeting (my photo).
Simply the ability to record construction progress from above has proven immensely useful to Essex Construction. For example, knowing the exact layout of post-tensioning tendons in a slab is critical to future modifications of that slab. Bluebeam software allows Essex to calibrate images of the tendons taken before the concrete is poured, and then measure their distance relative to datum points to locate them with greater precision than is possible using other means (such as ground-penetrating radar or x-ray technology). 

Justin likened the convenience of aerial photography on demand to having one’s private version of Google Earth. Up-to-the-minute imagery is always useful to construction teams, whereas months-old Google Earth pictures are less so. 

Justin also mentioned some of the exciting new software companies who have developed apps for construction drones. These include Skycatch, whose products transform digital imagery (photos and video) into 3D models and provide analysis and collaboration tools sharing drone data. Sketchfab can likewise generate 3D models from point cloud data collected by drones, and create virtual reality environments that help users solve problems collaboratively. Contractors can compare the resultant 3D models with those of the architect, ensuring fidelity with the design intent. 

Potential Liabilities
As an attorney at Hershner Hunter, Mark advises businesses on technology transactions and associated legal issues. He enjoys counseling clients on matters involving intellectual property rights, data privacy, and keeping proprietary business information protected. He also has a keen interest in unmanned aerial systems and is working to support their responsible and successful use throughout the Northwest. Like Justin, he has flown UAVs for many years, competing in international design, build, and fly competitions. 

According to Mark, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) holds the primary authority over the operation of UAVs for recreational or commercial purposes. The FAA rules governing their use differ depending upon you are flying drones for fun or work. Regardless of how they are used, the intent is to ensure public safety to the greatest degree possible by specifying operational limitations. 

Under the FAA rules, operators must keep their drones within visual line of sight, meaning the person flying the drone must be able to see it with the naked eye. Drones can fly only during the day (twilight flying is permitted if the drone has anti-collision lights). Drones cannot fly over people who are not participating in the operation or go higher than 400 feet above the ground. The maximum allowable speed is 100 mph. 

The State of Oregon additionally regulates the operation of drones, including the prohibition of weaponized UAVs and reckless interference with a manned aircraft. Oregon also has statutes governing use of drones by public bodies, including policies and procedures for the retention of collected data. 

The potential erosion of individual and collective privacy is perhaps the biggest concern people have with drones. In that regard the law is slow to catch up to the reality of drones and their increased presence in the skies over our heads. Mark says how criminal or civil penalties are imposed, and what the protections available to citizens may be with respect to widespread use of unmanned aerial vehicles, are matters that are only beginning to studied. Stay tuned.

Thanks to both Justin and Mark for providing an excellent primer on the awesome potential and capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles used in construction, as well as the regulatory environment in which they operate. I have no doubt the use of drones by the AEC industry will continue to grow and become increasingly commonplace on projects of all sizes and types. 

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Good attendance by CSI members and guests for the meeting (photo by Marina Wrensch)

This month’s chapter meeting took place at the Veterans Memorial Building (Mac’s Nightclub & Restaurant) on Willamette Street in mid-town Eugene. This wasn’t the first CSI-WVC meeting held at the venue but it was the first time I attended one there. I liked it: The room we were in was just the right size and had just the right atmosphere. The January meeting will likewise take place there; that program will be our chapter’s annual Projects in the Pipeline presentation, featuring news on upcoming projects in the Eugene-Springfield market. I hope to see all of you there!


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