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Delivering Differently | The rise of the drone

Falcon 8 cropped

The construction industry is finding an increasing number of applications for drones. New Civil Engineer speaks to the experts to find out what 2016 holds for the technology.

Of all the technologies with the potential to aid the construction industry’s transformation into an innovative and exciting sector capable of delivering differently, drone technology is the most hyped and the most ready to go.

But before talking about their inarguable potential, it’s probably best to clear one thing up. Most of us might refer to them as ‘drones’, but the experts prefer something else.

Falcon 8 cropped

Falcon 8

A Topcon Falcon 8 UAV

“We call them unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aerial systems (UASs),” says Mat Kellett, mobile mapping, UAS & OEM product manager for Topcon. “The name that everyone tries to avoid in the industry is drones because of the military connotations.”

Kellett thinks that the main thing the media has got right about the technology is the hype. He thinks drones, or rather UAVs, are here to stay and they’re performing genuinely useful functions on construction sites and infrastructure assets around the UK.

“In the last 12 months we’ve certainly seen a huge growth [in the use of UAVs],” he says. “The first year it was seen as a gimmicky technology – something that may be useful in the future – but now it has literally taken off and people have taken it on board as a serious tool.”

He explains that the most popular application for UAVs continues to be for surveying or mapping construction sites, and for inspecting assets such as the blades on wind turbines. 

“Looking at our customer base, a lot of people are using fixed wing UAVs to do larger area mapping, and wind farms is the most obvious application,” adds Kellett. “These more traditional aeroplane-like UAVs are much more suited to larger area mapping because they have a lot longer duration in the air.”

Meanwhile, rotary UAVs, which more closely resemble helicopters, have more of a dual purpose according to Kellett.

Falcon 8

Topcon Falcon 8

“People would use them for surveying or mapping smaller tighter sites but also then they would do inspection work within those, so bridge inspections, wind turbine blade inspections, that type of thing.”

With major software companies like Autodesk and Bentley now developing technology that allows operators to merge data that they have collected from their UAVs with existing survey information, Kellett thinks there is huge potential to use the technology to save time on site and create efficiencies.

“If you’re doing a quarry survey, a typical site will be a kilometre by a half kilometre in size and that would traditionally take one person up to a week to complete as a detailed survey,” he says. “Using a UAV you could do it in two 20 minute flights and collect a lot more data.”

The only thing holding the technology back would appear to be Civil Aviation Authority regulations and understandable public concerns about safety. These centre on the danger of a drone flying into commercial airspace and fears about a drone falling from the sky onto a member of the public – something that was not helped by an incident late last year when a falling UAV narrowly missed a slalom skier competing at an event in Italy.

Skier Marcel Hirscher escapes injury as drone smashes behind him during race

Such an incident wouldn’t have happened in the UK where UAVs are not permitted to fly above people, and 2016 is predicted to be a year when the CAA firms up regulations still further and cracks down, in particular, on dangerous recreational use of UAVs. Kellett thinks these new regulations could include measures which require recreational users to register their UAV systems when they buy them so that police can track the owner down if they are used dangerously.

But the professional market, which is already more stringently regulated, will be more concerned with rumours that the CAA is planning to impose a maximum weight limit on all UAVs. This will scotch the idea in some quarters of the construction industry that they might be used for delivering construction materials.

“If the 2kg limit is going to be applied, obviously that’s going to kill a lot of these wide-eyed claims from people like Amazon that they will start to deliver with UAVs, because with 2 kilos you can just about build a decent airframe,” says Kellett. “If you’ve got 1.5kg drone – to then add a payload to carry things is not going to be possible apart from your small cameras.”

However, in spite of the potential for tighter regulations, figures from the industry continue to explore new applications for the technology.

Marie Gilmour is innovation programme manager at Crossrail where, to date, UAVs have been used to provide footage of the project for the media, progress updates and site briefings. She thinks no matter how UAVs are used, the most important thing is to adopt a safety-conscious approach so that an accident doesn’t damage perceptions about the technology.

Drone's eye view of the Crossrail project

“It’s a risk averse approach, which we feel is appropriate in a construction environment, and which although it may add a little extra work, it’s the best way to help increase trust and promote wider usage of this technology,” she says.

Plans to find new applications for UAVs on Crossrail are being co-ordinated through a special interest group formed by the project’s Innovate18 programme which aims to explore and capture innovative construction ideas. Gilmour says there is definitely an appetite to increase usage, if it can be done safely.

“Innovate18 has already come up with new ideas to use drones to improve site inspections and surveys, particularly in difficult or hazardous environments. We’re also exploring combining drones with other technology, like 360 cameras and thermal imaging. We expect that as we build momentum and confidence, more ideas will be generated,” she says.

Topcon Falcon 8

Topcon Falcon 8

Gilmour adds that the special interest group is comparing the suitability of different UAV types for different tasks, and has also created an operations manual which includes guidance on risk assessments and method statements which need to be approved before it undertakes any trial. Crossrail has also funded training for a group of ‘drone pilots’ from across the business.

Kellett thinks the creation of such jobs should not be seen as a threat to people with more traditional construction roles.

“There’s such a lack of surveyors in the industry at the moment,” he says. “If you look at most websites, they are searching for people. UAVs might be the thing that entices people back into the industry.”

Coming soon, NCE will host a Future Technology Forum where it will discuss UAV technology.

Airships

Rumours that the CAA is about to introduce weight restrictions for drones will dampen predictions that they might ever be used to deliver construction materials to site. However, the industry will also have one eye on developments at US defence group Lockheed Martin which has developed a ‘hybrid’ airship. The machines have the potential to transport heavy cargo over huge distances and will not need mooring towers or runways to land, potentially enabling them to deliver to construction sites.

Lockheed is now ready to take orders through its partner Hybrid Enterprises for the design which can currently carry 20t of cargo and 19 people almost 2,400km at a cruising speed just below 112km/h. This version is around 130m long, which is less than half the size of its older counterparts, although it says it is working up to a model which can carry 500t which will be around 250m long.

P 791 first flight

Lockheed P791 first flight

The Lockheed hybrid airship on its first flight

The airships are ‘heavier than air’ meaning the helium that provides their lift is not enough to support the craft’s entire weight. The inert gas provides 80% of the lift required and the rest is generated as the airship is driven forward by its propellers.

To take off with a full load, the airships needs around 760m by 250m of clear space but this does not need to be paved, just clear of obstacles. Because the engines can rotate, their thrust can be directed to generate extra lift meaning they can take off vertically when not fully loaded.

The hybrids land on a cushion of air like a hovercraft and the fans in the system can be reversed to create suction to moor the vessel to the ground. All they need to land is a flat area of sand, gravel, snow or even water.

To read more about the Lockheed Martin airship, click here.

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