How Drones are Impacting the Design and Construction Industry: Today and Tomorrow

Photo courtesy of DJI

Recently, 7-Eleven made headlines by using a drone to deliver “a chicken sandwich, donuts, hot coffee and candy.” This happened the same week Amazon “partnered with the British government to significantly expand drone testing.” Approximately 3,000 companies in the U.S. are currently authorized to use drones—a number that continues to grow. Stellar recently purchased our first drone, and we are using its aerial imaging capabilities during construction of a new food manufacturing facility.

Engineering News-Record hosted two fascinating webinars that explored where drones will take the design and construction industries, specifically. Here, we review the top takeaways from tuning in and using drones ourselves.

Drone applications in construction

What qualifies as a “drone”? At its most basic level, a drone is an unmanned aircraft. You may hear drones referred to as remote piloted aircrafts (RPAs) or unmanned/ unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs). Meanwhile, UAVs are “preprogrammed prior to flight to do a specific set of tasks on a specific flight path.” Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) refer to the drone as well as the pilot, equipment and anything else that is used to fly.

The main difference between UAVs and UAS? UAS are typically “more complex and advanced” and are more popular in the construction industry. Cost-wise, the type of drone with the capabilities necessary for a construction project would start in the $50,000 range.  

In the short time construction projects have leveraged drones, the technology has proved to be an asset to plant owners, project managers and workers. Drone applications can benefit construction projects by offering:

  • Increased efficiency
  • Lower costs
  • Increased worker safety

3 benefits of aerial photography

Drones can take photos of the ground from an elevation of 100 to 300 feet. This is known as “aerial photography.” Other industries are utilizing this technology, as well.

For example, some police departments use aerial imaging to “help search for missing people, [monitor] traffic accidents and capture crime scene photos.” Real estate companies are also using drones to capture images of buildings, while engineering firms use aerial photography to survey potential projects like bridges.

Multiple industries leverage overhead photography. Drones and aerial imaging have multiple benefits for plant owners and building teams, too, including:

1. Site evaluation—Most drones are equipped with forward-mounted cameras that can move 180 degrees up or down. This allows drones to take up to 120 highly detailed photos in 10 minutes. This comprehensive view of a potential building site can help plant owners make more informed decisions. Stellar’s drone has allowed our team to obtain site images of existing buildings adjacent to our construction site. Without the drone, these images would have been very difficult to access by foot.

Changes can happen suddenly, and daily monitoring helps projects stay on schedule by providing frequent progress reports.  

2. Logistics planning— It can be difficult to capture photos during the installation of high structures (such as smokestacks). Usually, firms must hoist a worker up in a basket to inspect high structures. However, drones can capture images that would otherwise pose potential safety risks.

Drones can also capture traffic flow data surrounding a project site. Plant owners can use this traffic-pattern data to optimally schedule pick-ups and deliveries.

3. Detailed updates—It is common for different leaders attached to a construction project to be located in different cities. For example, the plant owner of a Dallas plant may live in Los Angeles, while the design-build firm is based out of Florida. Drones connect teams in a completely innovative way by providing project data. On our current project, Stellar is using our drone to keep food manufacturing owner representatives located across the country up-to-speed on construction.

No matter where they’re located, plant owners and project managers can receive photos updating them about a project day by day, using this data to conduct root-cause assessments and track progress.

Drone regulations and safety

Before you begin your next project, take the necessary steps to become drone-ready. UAS have preprogrammed flight patterns, but they still require operation by a pilot with a remote airman certificate. To obtain this certification, a pilot must:

  • Schedule an appointment with a Knowledge Testing Center to take an Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) knowledge exam
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge test
  • Complete FAA Form 8710-13

After obtaining a remote pilot’s certificate, partner with a drone provider to navigate the data. Drones can supply an excess of information, and it is important to learn what data is beneficial to you and your project.

A drone provider can also recommend which drone is the best fit for your project and facility. For example, a long linear building may require a drone with a longer battery life than a square facility.

Ensure you adhere to privacy laws by staying within the confines of your construction site, and fly drones when there is no one on the job site. This can prevent workers from becoming distracted by drones flying overhead. If you must fly drones during work hours, ensure workers are aware of the drone’s purpose and schedule.

The future of drones in design and construction

Over the past year, the use of drones in the design and construction industry has increased significantly. Advancements continue to be made to improve the drone user-experience, including:

  • Higher-resolution cameras
  • Longer battery life
  • Remote operations that don’t require an on-site pilot
  • Lowered costs of technology and its use

Still, drones are a fairly new technology for the construction industry—stay tuned to their evolution.

Where do you see drones impacting the design and construction industry? What about food manufacturing? Feel free to email me at to share your thoughts.

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