What we've learned in 20 years with this jobsite tech

On March 2, the commentary period ended for the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) proposed Remote ID rule. The rule would further facilitate safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems—or drones—into the United States airspace through a requirement that they can be identified remotely. 

According to a recent press release from the FAA, there are more than 1.5 million drones and 160,000 remote pilots registered with the organization. The proposed rule applies to all drones that are required to register with the FAA and remote pilots. 

The evolving regulations surrounding drone use on construction jobsites (and anywhere else for that matter) have coincided with continuous software and hardware improvements to the tech itself. With that in mind, CBO took a look back at the past 20 years and how drones have moved from being a tool used exclusively by the military to tech that is almost ubiquitous on today's jobsites. 

Dan Burton, chief executive officer of DroneBase, has been both an observer and user of drones over the past 2 decades. He now leads a company that provides drone services for industries across the board. DroneBase provides construction sites, in particular, with aerial imagery and data through its global pilot network spanning the entire U.S. and over 70 countries. 

"I was an early user of drones in the military, and I saw how aerial imagery allowed us to make better, more strategic decisions. I knew there was a business application for drones since that was where the future was heading. After serving in the Marines, I earned my master's in business administration from Harvard Business School and started getting to know the early companies adopting drones and how they were using them," Burton said. "From there, I founded DroneBase and homed in on scaling drone operations quickly, affordably, and reliably for enterprises and construction companies around the world." 

Read on for Burton's review of the past 20 years and what we can expect in the future. 

CBO: Looking back, what drones or comparable tech were available to the construction industry in 2000? 

DB: In 2000, drones were almost a mythical technology for construction companies. The equivalent to drone tech then was a helicopter flight, where someone would take a picture of a jobsite, however that was only accessible to larger enterprises. Even then, the quality of the picture was only as good as the camera the construction company had on-site. 

In the early 2000s, drones were primarily used in the military. When I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, I watched these systems computerize. At first, it was as big as an airplane, needed 55 people to operate it, took off from a runway, and cost $100,000 to fly. By 2010, drones had gotten to the personal computer level, where an infantry officer could be sent to a 2-week class and come back with a backpack drone. 

After I left the military in 2011, the commercial drones available needed to be assembled by hand with instructions in Chinese and were made by a little known company called DJI. It wasn’t until DJI came out with the first consumer and commercial drone that drone pilots began turning their hobby into a profession and we started to uncover business use cases, including construction. 

Today, drones are used to gather aerial imagery and data so contractors can track, map, survey, inspect, and manage jobsites more efficiently and safely. Enterprises use drones to deliver sophisticated analytics or provide a visual progress report to stakeholders. It’s a much safer solution than taking pictures from a crane and more affordable than a helicopter flight. 

CBO: What have been the most significant milestones in the evolution of drones and their offerings to the industry since 2000?

DB: The most significant milestones in the evolution of drones and their offerings to the construction industry are FAA regulations and the improvements of drone technology. These changes allowed drones to become a reliable way for contractors to gather aerial data quickly, reliably and safely. 

When the FAA first created airspace in the 1950s, it wasn’t done so with technology in mind—just airplanes. By the time commercial-grade drones came along, there was a lot of confusion on when and where drones could fly. First there was the FAA’s 333 Exemption in 2014, which gave clarity on commercial drones and allowed companies to fly drones in restricted airspace. 

Since then, there have been two big changes—the Part 107 program and Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC). The Part 107 program is a one-time written test to provide a license for commercial pilots to fly drones. This increased the drone pilot pool to a couple of thousand to over 120,000 in the U.S., which expanded the amount of pilots in our network for construction companies to hire.

In 2017, the FAA began rolling out LAANC across the country, which allows commercial drone pilots to check airspace clearance directly with the FAA. Roughly 25% to 30% of buildings are within restricted airspace, say 5 miles of a local airport, where a drone cannot be flown. Now, we can easily get clearance in a matter of seconds, compared to the 90-day wait time before, so contractors are able to rely on us 99 percent of the time. 

Additionally, drone technology has vastly improved over the past 2 decades, which enables contractors to have better images and data. The drones in use today are much more reliable with safety features and obstacle avoidance, have extended battery life, and capture aerial photography in stunning quality. More advanced drones are also more affordable for drone pilots to purchase, which allows them to spend less investing in the hardware to have a better result. 

CBO: What does a tech-savvy contractor’s jobsite look like in terms of drone usage?  

DB: In 2020, I believe drones with thermal sensors and ground control points (GCPs) will gain more traction and continue to be leveraged on construction sites. Drones with thermal sensors are able to gather more data that isn’t noticeable to the naked eye, and until now, it hasn’t been as accessible due to the high price point.

Thermal drone technology enables construction sites to identify problems more quickly, whether a water leak or crack. Contractors can supplement the thermal imagery with GCPs to create even more accurate maps of a jobsite than a drone by itself. 

CBO: How have these advancements allowed for higher productivity, profitability, safety, etc.?

DB: Drones have become a go-to tool on construction sites since they help gather images and video for mapping projects, report progress updates and gain insights through advanced analytics. Through this data, contractors are able to make better, faster and more reliable decisions about their most critical assets.

For stakeholders monitoring multiple sites across the country, drones provide an easy way to be updated on progress or select sites from one place by simply leveraging a drone operations provider. 

In terms of safety, drones provide a safe way to see the entire site from above, often important in monitoring stockpiles. Before contractors go purchase a drone and try it for themselves, it’s important to make sure that the site is operating within the FAA’s Part 107 rules for commercial drone flights. 

CBO: What do you feel has been the most innovative or effective type of drone or drone software to come out since 2000?

DB: The drone industry has gradually evolved, rather than have a sudden movement that changed overnight. That has been the most common misconception about the drone industry—that there would be a moment and suddenly drones would be everywhere. That day will come eventually, and it’ll take more time for the industry to continue to evolve. 

CBO: What’s next for drones in construction?

DB: Advanced sensors and more intelligent analytics will be the next game changers for drones in the construction industry. Advanced sensors, such as thermal, infrared and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), will allow contractors to spot problems in advance and get more accurate information. LiDAR will allow contractors to survey a site within minutes. There are currently LiDAR drones available, however, as technology advances, the costs will be more accessible for more pilots and companies.