Drone usage in the UK and worldwide has rocketed in recent years, but is there a place for drones in construction? Industries such as media, sport, and agriculture are capitalising on the functionality of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV) to perform work functions. The advances in the technology used in Drones or UAV’s are progressing rapidly and is opening new possibilities for work applications on building and construction projects in the UK.
Features like height lock, automatic landing, GPS functionality are all factors which are making drones attractive for the workplace, although the real selling point is that drones now come fitted with HD cameras to record high quality aerial footage of areas which where previously hard to reach. Each drone varies in camera functionality with some drones requiring the retrofitting of action cameras and the more expensive models coming with a pre-installed on board camera, each of which have their pro’s and cons.
Becoming a Pilot
Of course the increase in drone use has came with some bad press, the functionality of drones combined with the high quality outputs from the cameras demonstrate a risk to security of both the general public and other aircraft. Due to the lack of guidelines available many operators are not aware of the potential dangers as well as lacking the relevant training towards avoiding collisions.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) outlines that drones used for commercial uses are required to be certified pilots. To become certified organisations need to obtain Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW) from the CAA. The certification process can be offered by national qualified entities (NQE’s) who have been approved by the CAA. The process initially involves a classroom based learning environment where trainee pilots will learn about and complete a test on air law and safe operation of the UAV. The trainees will then be asked to demonstrate there ability to plan a flight, carry out a flight and react to emergency situations to demonstrate their drone handlings capabilities. Capable pilots will then build an operations manual including details of there business uses, pilot’s ability and insurance documents etc. Once complete, the operations manual along with other documents can be sent of the CAA to gain Permission for Aerial Work (PfAW).
What are the uses for Drones in Construction?
The potential for drones in construction is certainly enticing, but what can they be used for?
- Building Surveys – Drone can prove to be a unique tool for condition surveys, dilapidations surveys, defects appraisals of roof areas and more. In most instances getting access to a roof can be tricky and often involves the erection of a scaffold, use of a cherry picker or ladders. Strategically planning a UAV flight to perform the survey for us could save time, money and reduce health and safety risks involved with surveying a roof and other tricky areas.
- Construction Site Inspections – The ability for drones to carry out visual inspection of high risk areas of a construction site can reduce health and safety risks on site and can allow for in depth project updates for stakeholders not located on site.
- Health and Safety Inductions – Using a drone to fly over a site in real time can help to show new site operatives what works are being carried out in real-time. Good examples of this are moving vehicles, cranes, or excavation areas
- Maintenance Inspections –Drones can be used to carry out planned or reactive maintenance inspections of hard to reach structures reducing the risk of personnel having to carry out work at height. Good examples include bridges, towers, roofs and scaffolding
- Promotional Photography – The capture of impressive site photography can be used for promotional material and marketing purposes. Ariel shots of a property or building may be used for demonstrating areas of the building to potential customers.
- Point cloud scanning – Laser scanning can now be carried out by drones, aerial flight around hard to reach places can provide the missing piece to point cloud scan for input into Building Information Models.
- Thermal Imaging recording – Drones can be used to take aerial thermal imaging recordings which can be used to assess potential cold spots in buildings or even hot spots in areas holding electrical components.
But which drones are good for construction?
So we are sold on the idea of drones in construction, and we want to get involved in the movement. but which drone is best?
There is a large amount of drones available on the market all of which vary in prices making it difficult to work out which drone is best for carrying out aerial work in architecture and construction.
DJI can be seen as a the market leader in drone products and are well known for the based on flying capabilities and the ability to record the best quality images and video, something which is important for construction use.
Below we have reviewed the best of the DJI products for construction, starting from the first of the DJI Phantom range:
DJI Phantom 1
The Phantom 1 was released in January, 2013 was originally known as Phantom. This model was often used with a GoPro action camera. It was the first drone an on-board GPS and fail-safe system if transmitter connection is lost. This model had a battery life of less than 10 minutes.
Although this model is no longer available to buy from DJI it is a good reminder of where the Phantom range began. This model was superseded by the Phantom 2 which was released in December 2013.
DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H4-3D 3-axis Gimbal with FPV
Not all drones come fitted with cameras and usually the ones that don’t do come a little cheaper. However, you can still achieve high quality footage with a drone that is not pre-installed with a camera by attaching a small action camera of your own, the GoPro. In many cases this option can give a cheaper solution for achieving higher quality images especially if you already own a GoPro camera. If not you can pick one up from amazon for relatively reasonable price. The latest GoPro model, the HERO4, shoots in 4K and is currently listed on amazon as the #1 bestseller HD camcorder.
The Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H4-3D 3-axis Gimbal is ranked as one of the best drones for carrying action cameras such as the go pro. This drone is super powerful and stable which will allow for great quality action shooting.
This package can be purchased with either the H3-3D(for the Hero 4) or the H4-3D(for the Hero3), both of which feature a 3-axis gimbal which generally provides better video stability and 3-axis of movement.
This drone also offers an automatic return-to-home feature, a failsafe system which automatically returns the drone home and lands when the pilot if getting into trouble. This feature is often used for when the pilot looses sight of the aircraft and wants to get it back without piloting.
One notable benefit with using this set up is that the Go-Pro can be replaced for a GoPro with better quality video capabilities as the technology progresses, unlike the pre-installed cameras on other drone models of this price range.
In order to fly these drones for commercial use they must have FPV (First Person View) capabilities which can increase the price of the drone. FPV technology allows the user to view the camera from the screen in real-time allowing you to see where the drone is flying from a screen on the remote control. FPV can be purchased preinstalled on the DJI Phantom 2 Model or various retro-fitted FPV solutions can be applied.
When adding the drone, GoPro and FPV system, this machine may not remain the cheaper option and looking for the more expensive professional options may save you a lot of hassle!
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
The Phantom 3 Professional is a top of the range professional UAV, with attached on board 4K camera for shooting high quality images and great aircraft functionality.
These drones have an impressive 4K Video and also takes 12 Megapixel photos. This model is extremely easy to fly and has a dedicated remote controller as well as a powerful mobile app that allows for real-time HD viewing of the on board camera as well and lots more functionality for recording and flying.
The Professional uses DJI’s new lightbridge (FPV) technology which functions using the DJI pilot app allowing for a 720p HD real-time view of everything the camera sees as it fly’s. The DJI pilot app gives lots of control over camera settings allowing the user to change features like exposure, light balance and speed etc. or these features can be locked on an automated mode depending on what is being videoed.
The Phantom 3 Professional also has return-to-home feature which is similar to the Phantom 2 as it returns back to the point which is took off.
It is worth noting that flying and trying to record at the same time can be difficult, even for more skilled pilots. With the Phantom 3 and Phantom 2 you have to manoeuvre the aircraft in order to point the camera in the direction you are looking to film, something which can be tricky for less advanced pilots.
DJI Inspire 1 Pro
The DJI Inspire 1 Pro is DJI’s most advanced professional drone package which packs all the advanced UAV technology into one aircraft.
The DJI Inspire 1 Pro has Dual User functionality which allows two people to operate the aircraft at the same time. One person controls the flying while the other person controls the camera. This dual person set up allows for better quality video creation and more accurate flying when operating in the more tricky areas.
This aircraft also has a return-to-home feature but with an impressive twist, the return to home button on the controller triggers the drone to return to the control itself rather than where it took off. So if your moving around controlling the drone, for instance walking around a building, the aircraft can fly itself back to the pilot if there are any problems.
The Inspire 1 Pro controller also has a HDMI output so that the view of the aircrafts camera can be connected to an external monitor such as a TV or computer screen, or even some FPV (First Person View) glasses.
This drone is also capable of capturing high quality 4K video and transmitting in a HD video signal to multiple devices. This aircraft also features the Lightbridge HD downlink which functions with the DJI pilot app allowing for a 720p HD real-time view of everything the camera sees as it fly’s. This ultra long range wireless system, allows for a range of around one mile with minimal lag.
The Inspire 1 Pro has full 360° camera rotation giving ultimate control over the camera allowing the camera operator to move as fast or as slow as they want.
For uses in construction it is hard to find fault with the Inspire 1 Pro.
But if we were going to be picky, we could say that DJI pilot doesn’t support point of interest where you can lock in a position and it will circle it, nor does it support waypoint GPS navigation where you can set an area and the altitude where you would like the drone to fly and the drone would fly to these locations and take images and return to home.
If you are looking to turn some heads with your drone you could option to go for the Black Edition which is the upgraded edition of the Inspire 1 Pro, and looks a lots more impressive and really stands out from the crowd!
Final comparison of the Inspire 1 Pro and Phantom 3 Pro
- The Inspire 1 Pro has dual person control, the Phantom is single control.
- The Inspire 1 Pro the controller has a HDMI out so you can connect it to an external video, the Phantom 3 you have the DJI app for viewing.
- The Inspire 1 Pro landing gear legs move out of the way when the aircraft is in flight allowing for you to pan the camera around and not see the leg in the video. This can be seen as an issue with the Phantom 3, as you can sometimes see the tips of the propellers and the landing gear.
- Inspire 1 Pro has return to controller where Phantom 3 Pro comes back to its take of position.
- With the Inspire 1 Pro the app is basically used as passive monitor, and therefore if the app crashers then the controller still has control of the drone, also if the controller is plugged into an external video source via HDMI then the app is not needed at all. With the Phantom, if the app crashes there could be trouble.
Your decision buying decision is heavily based on price and requirement for functionality. The question you need to ask is what will you being using the camera for? And how would your drone to perform to get the most out of the services you provide.
The Inspire 1 Pro tops each of the drones for its functionality, especially the dual person control system, the HDMI controller outputs an the return to control features, although these options do come with the price.
The Phantom 3 Pro offers a similar high performance minus a few features for a smaller price.
The DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H4-3D 3-axis Gimbal lets you use your own GoPro action camera, however could be seen as a little more hassle to set up than the more expensive options.
Whichever camera you decide to go for, remember that before you fly the drone commercially you need to complete your pilot training! Gain your certification from the CAA will allow you to start using these drones in construction!
Try This First
Lets be honest we all love a good toy, why not practise you drone skills with this mini quadcopter.
Author: Martin Watson
Lead Editor at Construct Digital – As lead editor Martin reports on topics specifically relating to BIM, digital software and physical technologies which are revolutionising the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industry.