While drones are still not quite the norm in the construction industry, early adopters are reaping massive benefits by augmenting their services with UAV systems and the high-quality solutions they deliver.
Cool Technology Transforming
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Ulrich Strecker, Managing Director of IBS Bauvermessung, is a pioneer in the use of drones in the construction industry. For several years he has gathered many insights and gained practical experience flying drones in the federal states of NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate and the Saarland. Word has spread that drones provide surveying data quickly and cost-effectively, and that, in the case of smaller construction companies, the finer technical points of drone-based surveying are not fully realized.
"When talking to professionals in the construction industry, most people think of drones as ‘flying’ 3D laser scanners,” Strecker summarizes from his previous experience. Three-dimensional measurement via laser is already well known, as are drones’ performance capabilities. What is not usually considered, however, is that you can also generate 3D point clouds from camera systems on drones. They provide the basis for comprehensive measurement of construction sites using surveying technology. Therefore, according to Strecker, it is important to address the latest UAV advancements in photogrammetry with surveying experts in the construction industry.
Sales Structure Supporting Trimble products
IBS Vermessungen from Baden is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sitech GmbH, the exclusive distribution partner of Trimble in Germany for the construction industry, and specializes in the implementation of surveying projects, especially in the fields of earth-moving and civil engineering. Drone flying plays a big role. “Before buying their own drone, customers generally first have a provider implement a project. In addition, we will be booked for initial briefings, training and technical support," reports Strecker. For customers, it is essential that everything comes from a single source.
Trimble itself entered the drone industry very early and had acquired a Belgian provider of fixed-wing aircraft. However, in the area of multicopters, the company pursues a different strategy and relies on partnerships. In 2016, the company began to work with Microdrones. Trimble added the Siegen-based manufacturer to its distribution portfolio as the preferred provider of vertical take-off and landing drone systems worldwide. What is special about this: Microdrones not only develops the aircraft itself but integrates complete surveying solutions. Specifically, Trimble's distribution partners offer mdMapper for unmanned aerial photogrammetry, mdLiDAR for unmanned aerial LiDAR applications, and mdTector for methane gas detection. Sitech is a pure trading organization that provides full support for Trimble products, but in the case of Microdrones products, the service is still provided by the manufacturer itself.
Until now, IBS Vermssungen has carried out and professionally supported a wide variety of applications. This includes coverage of areas in development, pre-tender bulk assessment preliminary condition surveys, large-scale construction progress documentation, post-construction documentation (as-built documentation), quantity determinations for interim or partial invoices, regular inventory surveys of storage areas, data collection for production planning in extraction operations, quantity determination as a basis for the performance report, or even construction site visualization for public relations purposes as well as a comparison of different variants with the client. Although construction companies are beginning to pay more attention to airborne surveys, Sitech does not yet have a department specializing in this area. "It's still too early for that, but if this trend continues, the time will certainly come to establish such a department," says Bernhard Linssen, area sales manager at Sitech. Also, many companies start with a low-cost UAV solution, but a significant share will switch to a specialized solution from Microdrones.
Two Groups of Early Adopters
Linssen describes two main groups that are quick to adopt drone use in the construction industry. One is the surveying departments of the big construction companies. Their early interest allowed them to take a scientific approach to exploring the drone’s practical potential. The other group of early adopters were the privately owned mid-sized companies. “Here, the special attraction to drones was ripe with potential, as tech-savvy managers simply found them to be cool,” says Linssen. Meanwhile, the trends come to a head in practice: "The early adopters learn how to generate added value with the drones, and the surveyors have started applying the theoretical concepts in practice," according to the survey engineer Linssen.
Users recognize the benefits of more than just the technology itself. "They also learn to assess the quality of a drone solution," says Linssen. The Microdrones solution, for example, uses a larger camera (due to the higher payload) and accordingly has a better camera sensor. This makes it possible, for example, to choose a higher altitude and still deliver better quality data. This results in higher productivity over a surface area, which can significantly reduce the flight cost. Add to this the high in-flight stability of the Microdrones product family and the long flight times: "Even with the heavy full-format camera as a sensor, 40 minutes of flight time is possible, while with other models you often cannot fly for more than 10 minutes," says Strecker. "We can easily prove that the higher acquisition cost of the drone solution is the better and more economical solution overall," says Linssen. Of course, what counts in the survey is the accuracy. "We work with different drone systems, and the Microdrones solutions are definitely at the forefront of current technical feasibility," says Strecker.
This is also demonstrated by Microdrones laser-based mdLiDAR solution, which was introduced last year and is already being used by large construction companies. "The topic will definitely become prevalent throughout the industry," says Linssen. The experts see the advantage of the scanners not just in the higher accuracy of the results. It is just as good as in the photogrammetric images, even at higher altitudes, says Strecker. Furthermore, the scanner delivers good results in overgrown areas, such as areas of high vegetation or when shooting in heavily built-up areas – meaning, wherever it is difficult for the camera to take images of the same point from different angles. Another point: in contrast to a camera, the laser does not need any image overlapping. That means that productivity, in terms of surface area is again significantly higher, which plays a prominent role especially with linear infrastructures. "In the future, we will certainly have drones in the construction industry in which both sensors will be integrated," Linssen is convinced.
Another burning topic in the construction industry is the subject of flight outside of the visual range of sight (BVLOS, Beyond Visual Line of Sight). Today, this can only be achieved by receiving special flight approval exceptions and waivers. However, BVLOS flight offers several advantages in applications for road and traffic infrastructure, where the distance to gather data can be much greater. Microdrones is already very active in the development of BVLOS technology and has conducted research projects with Deutsche Telekom and the German Air Traffic Control. "When flying beyond visual line of sight becomes a reality, Microdrones will be able to extend its technological lead even further," Linssen is convinced.
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