Rise of the drone: Unmanned aircraft finds new ally in construction industry

Construction Drone for surveying

[Editor’s Note: Luis Trujillo, GPS field specialist with Ames Construction, shared that by using drones over the past two years, their company has saved at least $2 million.]

This post originally appeared on http://www.vvdailypress.com/news/20161120/rise-of-drone-unmanned-aircraft-finds-new-ally-in-construction-industry.

VICTORVILLE — In a white hardhat and construction vest, Luis Trujillo grasps a small drone with both hands, bends forward and backpedals. After sizing up the launch, he takes a few quick steps ahead and push-releases the unmanned, GPS-controlled aircraft into a clear, late morning sky.

It zips and then ascends, circling as it climbs. It’ll land not long after in the reverse fashion, always touching down within 16 feet of where it took off and, on this day, into Trujillo’s clutch — a slick catch — although he says it’s designed to slide on surfaces like this one.

Working on Tuesday from a razed dirt swath just west of Interstate 15 close by Stoddard Wells Road, Trujillo isn’t a hobbyist. But he can aptly describe the drone’s functions, the back-end software and the regulatory rules of the air. The aircraft’s flight pattern is predetermined with mere touches on a tablet — “that way, there’s no human error involved,” he says.

As a GPS field specialist with Corona-based Ames Construction, Inc., Trujillo is tasked with overseeing the flight of the 3-pound drone, which is strapped with a $250 point-and-shoot camera to record millions of data points that will form three-dimensional conditions of the ground after dirt has been moved.

The job of surveying, in fact, has increasingly turned away from human teams and toward drones for its lesser price tag and greater productivity. Trujillo’s company has embraced the technology — known mostly for its military and hobbyist uses — over more than two years now, he says, saving Ames Construction at least $2 million in the process.

“We think drones are entering a new era,” Noah Poponok, an aerospace and defense specialist with Goldman Sachs Research, suggested in a May video on the firm’s website. “There’s the common thread of them increasing efficiency, increasing safety and doing so at lower costs and, cumulatively over the next five years, we see this as a $100 billion market.”

Two months earlier, a Goldman Sachs report estimated that $11.2 billion of the drone’s robust global future would steer to the construction industry, which is projected to collect the biggest share of any segment within the business or civil government sectors and nearly double that of the projections for agriculture, the next most promising segment.

Skylogic, a Redwood City-based research, content and advisory firm in California in the commercial drone industry, detailed the advantages of small drones in a recent report, including that they “can fly lower and closer than traditional aircraft and capture more useful detailed information.”

“Up until now, the process for construction planning and documenting was mostly manual and done from the ground,” the report said, “and hiring helicopters or aircraft to take images was either too costly or logistically impossible due to airspace restrictions.”

On Tuesday, Trujillo and the machine were working together on a major project to reconstruct three I-15 interchanges: Stoddard Wells Road and D and E streets. The company is expected to complete the work and widen the Mojave River Bridge by the end of 2018. They’re on schedule and still undertaking preliminary work, and while there remains traffic congestion at D Street due to construction, no freeway lane closures are planned in the immediate future, according to Phillip Havins, spokesman for Caltrans, which is overseeing the $76 million project.

Havins also said Caltrans had no plans as of now to implement drones into its own repertoire for surveying, although he appeared awed as he and Trujillo tracked the light-weight composite Styrofoam aircraft via both Google Maps and Google Earth.

For certain projects, Trujillo will fly every week and for others he may not fly for months — it depends on when dirt is moved. On this particular project, he’s out every 15th of the month. With the company’s smallest job he’s working on — 46 acres — the drone can acquire 97 million data points in a mere 15 minutes, far faster and beyond the thousands that a team of people can do.

Further, the drone can acquire 270 million points on this I-15 interchange reconstruction project and then process the data to eliminate so-called “white noise,” like vehicles and trees, whittling the information to a more manageable 5 million data points or fewer. The software in Trujillo’s hands also returns critical data such as wind speed, internal temperature and coverage area.

By law, the aircraft can never fly above 400 feet unless exceptions have been authorized, and Trujillo acknowledges that state and federal regulations may ultimately be one hurdle to the technology’s expedited widespread adoption in this industry.

But as one signal of the rise of the drone and its cross-over ability, he says Ames Construction and other like companies were asked by authorities this year to provide drone coverage following the Pilot and Bluecut fires in efforts to determine the extent of the damage.

Trujillo’s drone, boasting a battery life of up to 45 minutes, is even equipped with safety features, including the ability to detect structures not yet reflected on Google Earth and is designed to lose its wings if it were ever to strike something.

“It does get blown around (by wind),” Trujillo says, “but it’s still able to stitch together the photos very nicely.”

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