Drones in Civil Engineering and Construction – a lost opportunity?

The UK commercial drone industry has really got to get its act together if it does not want to miss out on the much-heralded financial rewards predicted for the industry, according to Drone Safe Register’s Adrian Westwood following his attendance at two of the UK’s largest civil engineering and construction industry trade fairs. 

The Kent Construction Expo 2019 at the Kent Event Centre, Maidstone, attracted more than 2,000 visitors to the 170+ trade stands, representing the largest gathering of construction industry professionals, contractors and specialist service providers in the South East.

The event covered every aspect of the construction industry from smart technology through to building materials, from heating solutions to biomass, from concrete, the hire market right through to the latest building software, architecture, CAD systems, BIM and digitisation. 

Kent has always been a strategic player in the South East and a key location for commercial investment, either start-ups, scaling up from a base nearby or relocating from the rest of the UK or overseas, because of its business-friendly local authorities and planning committees and transport links to London, the rest of the UK and Europe. It has always been on the radar for investors, companies and developers.

The Thames Estuary, North Kent and South Essex, Medway and the towns and cities of East Kent, especially Ashford and Folkestone, have recognised the challenges posed by the Northern Power House and the Midlands Engine projects. 

Everywhere you go in Kent, especially in the east of the county, you will see towering cranes changing their skylines as housing and commercial developments, hotels, retail and leisure complexes, and significant long-term housing developments on greenbelt land, take shape. Creative and digital industries, food and drink, manufacturing, and life sciences are among the expanding sectors, attracting multi-million pound projects and contributing an estimated six billion pounds Gross Value Added to the UK economy.

“Kent undoubtedly punches above its weight when it comes to industry innovations and big construction projects. There is no doubt the construction sector is booking in the South East, with major developments right across the region and the pace of new housebuilding ramping up all the time,” enthused Jo James, Chief Executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce.

“So it’s no surprise that construction is now the second largest industry sector in the region and a major contributor to the continued economic growth across Kent and the South East. The expo provides a unique opportunity to get the inside track on major infrastructure projects and the latest industry developments.” 

Traditionally, construction is seen as one of the lagging-behind industries when it comes to adopting new technology. However, leading construction companies are starting to embrace the newest technology in every aspect of the construction process: design, planning, QS, SS, health and safety, regulation compliance, materials, payroll management, plant and machinery and off-site construction. 

“Innovation has always found its way into how we construct buildings and infrastructure,” remarked Simon Barnes, Industry Engagement Manager at the University of Kent.. 

“Construction, in Kent and elsewhere, is currently facing challenges that represent the biggest transformation for the sector in its history. Driving this change is new technology, new investment and a labour market revolution in the skills required in the modern construction workforce.”

However, it would appear drones do not figure in this lucrative new world. Of the 170+ trade stands, only one was a dedicated drone company.

I came away from the expo with conflicting thoughts. Did the absence of drones from the new transformative technological menu indicate a lack of knowledge and understanding of the financial and environmental benefits of using drones in the civil engineering and construction sectors by providers and clients, or was it a more-fundamental aversion to the new technology? 

My next outing was to the Digital Construction Expo at Excel London. Here, I would surely see evidence of drones being used in what the organisers termed: The leading exhibition and conference dedicated to Innovation and Technology in the Built Environment.

Some 200 exhibitors from the UK, Europe, USA, Japan and elsewhere, took space at the expo, again showcasing the latest digital technology used in the civil engineering and construction industries. 

There was an indoor drone racing circuit, and a drone flying simulator from RotorRush, but only one drone on show in the whole exhibition space – Topcon’s familiar yellow Intel Falcon 8 used for mapping and inspections in high-winds and strong magnetic interference environments. And where you see Topcon, Bentley Systems will be nearby, providing the cloud-based services need to analyse the data collected by Topcon’s aerial and ground-based surveying systems. 

Other software providers included PIX4D, promoting their workflow solutions using fixed-wing and rotary drones: orthomosaics, 3D Point Cloud, 3D textured mesh, elevation models and contour lines; and BlueSky, promoting their LiDAR and photogrammetry aerial survey, GIS data services, and aerial environmental surveys. Fascinating stuff, but no drones…they use light aircraft.

A vast numner of the stands were occupied by companies offering state-of-the-art BIM,4D Virtual Reality and 3D Rendering services, with the ability to construct single buildings and whole smart cities with your hands on a green-screen. All used aerial footage of some sort, but nowhere was it mentioned how the aerial footage was secured. 

I, eventually, found two surveying companies which used drones.  They have used UAVs along Network Rail lines, over Smithfield Market, the Westminster Palace/Houses of Parliament restoration project, sub-5mm survey of the Don Viaduct between Aberdeen and Inverness, and to map Clapham Park for 3,500 houses. These companies knew the value of drones in adding real value to their clients’ projects in a fraction of the time taken by traditional survey methods.

The common thread throughout both exhibitions and conferences was that the civil engineering and construction industries are experiencing one of their biggest periods of change, and that digital processes and technologies had moved from the theoretical to real life. Many companies struggle to deliver complex projects on time and on budget. There is mounting pressure to design and construct in more efficient and sustainable ways. 

This is the time, therefore, for construction and civil engineering companies to adopt the new UAV technologies and softwares to improve their performance and their margins. In short, the future for the commercial drone industry is intrinsically linked to the way construction and civil engineering will develop over the next few years. The message from Drone Safe Register is: early adoption of these changes represents a huge opportunity to gain real competitive advantage.

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