The Power Of Aerial Imagery from Drones in Construction

Oren John Schauble
Aug 17, 2017 · 8 min read

Many have heard about drone or aerial data impacting complex operations around surveying and calculations, but the real value is even simpler. Photos from above are helping digitize constructions sites and make decisions across departments that impact the business every day.

The Future of Accountability

Drones don’t just provide high-quality aerial photos. Drones are a machine in a sophisticated information chain: you can capture images and data automatically and replicate those captures whenever you want. All data are then automatically configured for and integrated into the analytical and business solutions you already use.

Importantly, this is about accountability. When you tap Hangar’s services, your aerial photos will be captured by a third party via precision machine. This gives you impartial attribution: Every one of our captures is automatically timestamped, geotagged to a specific location, and archived in the cloud. Among other things, this is the perfect solution for resolving claims quickly and impartially.

The specific value of photos in construction

Photographs provide one of the best records of job progress. Acquired consistently, photos allow managers to track jobs and judge if work is progressing on schedule, and they can also prove when (and how well) work was completed. Additionally, a review of the photographic record can demonstrate when progress was best, which helps stakeholders identify hang-ups and informs solutions for improving efficiency and design.

This hasn’t always been practical. In the past most aerials were taken from helicopter or satellite, which were incomplete solutions: each have their own drawbacks, such as accuracy, expense, time, and safety. Drones, however, are powerful, reliable, and affordable imaging platforms that address all those concerns, and they’ve taken their place on-site next to tried-and-true machines.

In addition to being much less expensive than a helicopter, drones are more versatile. For instance, an industry survey ranked “tracking job progress” as the number one use of drones in construction. Drones can easily capture crisp images in places it might otherwise be difficult or impossible, such as close to the exteriors of high-rises or underneath spans and structures. We often forget that drones can also take pictures close to the ground, and can get closer to subjects than can legally and physically be done using a helicopter. For example, you can’t fly a helicopter underneath the Space Needle in Seattle, WA, but if you have the proper licensing, you can get there with a drone.

We understand the value that precision photo and data analytics have for virtual design and construction (VDC) teams, but these applications focus mainly on the interior of a project, for as-builts and comparing/preparing models for completed work. The technology can’t account for much of the action that happens outside, which architects, developers, builders, and contractors must also track. Not only is such data necessary to accurately document site progress, it isn’t worth much unless it’s reliable and up-to-date. This is where aerial systems will excel.

Drones capture critical images and data on-site. An operator on your team or a third-party provider such as Hangar (more on that below) can run these missions easily, cheaply, and frequently, with tremendous payoff. When you combine the panoramic aerial perspective with state-of-the-art cameras and sensors, you get visuals that are both comprehensive and precise for sites of any size, and dated pictures offer a visual timeline of project progress. Drone systems can improve and accelerate several existing processes:

  • Report and forecast project status
  • Document progress over time
  • Plan and adjust transportation routes
  • Track efficiency of site layout
  • Monitor resource use and adjust allotment
  • Track and record contractor work

The value of data tagging

Everyone appreciates pictures and videos, but because shots have never been tagged consistently to specific GPS points and view angles they’ve had limited repeatability and, concomitantly, limited usefulness. All data we collect is automatically geotagged and timestamped. You can overlay your aerial data onto any spatial or vector data, models, or plans you already have and be confident of the accuracy every time, even as jobs progress and change over time.

In this regard, no one offers something like Hangar’s JobSight, yet many companies are trying (at least inside for as-builts). Not only does JobSight collect, tag, and process your data for on-site monitoring and decision-making, it enables telepresence for stakeholders who can’t be on-site. If stakeholders or decision-makers can’t make it to the jobsite, comprehensive high-definition imagery can be a lifesaver. Key players can access aerial data whenever they need it, a resource that can help iron out project management concerns and enable communication among and between organizations.

JobSight delivers all imagery and data with no processing needed on your end. We can share this data either via our web interface or by integrating it into our clients’ familiar project management platforms.

Aerial photography in claims

One of the best features Hangar offers might at first seem ancillary: We can serve as a third-party operator. All timecodes, locations, and views we capture and process via an impartial operator through an even more impartial machine. This gives underwriters, contractors, and owners a high level of confidence that the reporting matches the reality. It’s particularly useful in claims.

Claims companies often use photographs as an evidentiary resource. Accurate and reliable photos can verify conditions on-site and demonstrate any changes, illustrate characteristics and variations under different conditions, and provide a record of methods and equipment used on a job. Pictures tell stories, too. They can show causal relationships of changes resulting from managerial decisions or site conditions over time, and can help managers and adjudicators evaluate the costs and benefits of key decisions.

For example, a series of pictures can demonstrate how adding a structure to a contract unexpectedly forced those contractors to reroute access roads, which in turned disrupted other work-zones under different contracts.

While photos are clearly useful in claims, adjudication demands consistency and accountability. All photos need to be tagged with dates, times, file names, photo numbers, who took the photo, location, etc. Without this kind of reliable and readily available metadata, most photo evidence can’t be validated, which means resolution can drag on for a long time. The Hangar system, however, automatically collects, processes, and archives all the evidentiary metadata claims companies and contractors need.

And because all timecodes, locations, and views are captured and processed via an impartial operator (through an even more impartial machine), companies can be assured the data is truly objective. This gives underwriters, contractors, and owners a high level of confidence that the reporting matches the reality.

And of course, there’s litigation. Accurate and verifiable visual documentation can be invaluable evidence for firms, contractors, and owners facing or pursuing damage claims. Drones collect visible proof of site conditions before, during, and after your contract.

The value of aerial data in the bonding process

Contractors already involved in projects need to free up their bonding capacity if they want to get bonded for taking on more work. To do this contractors need to be able to prove a project’s progress, and typically this requires the owner to sign a project status report. The turnaround for acquiring such documentation might drag on, however, and applicants might miss opportunities to take on new projects.

Photographs can speed up the process of releasing bonding capacity. If a contractor can provide pictures from various angles that show completed sections, underwriters will be able to confirm project status and open capacity. In one such documented case (Rancho Mesa), an issuer released over $750,000 of bonding capacity based on photographic evidence. Our systems tag imagery with all the metadata required to verify accuracy and validity.

The Future of Jobsite Photography: Safety

Remember that drones aren’t just hardware. The flying robot is just the most visible part of what’s in reality a sophisticated end-to-end data collection and processing system. The software systems that drones interact with are becoming more and more important for managing and processing visual data.

For instance, the same neural network software (sometimes used interchangeably with “artificial intelligence” or “machine learning”) that identifies faces in your social media pictures can also be used to identify safety violations. Not only that, but software can do it faster and more accurately than humans.

Why does this apply to safety? Drones provide a tremendous amount of visual data to help “teach” this software, including live aerial video feeds that can cover an entire site. It’s reasonable to expect it won’t be long before artificial intelligence can process that video in real time to alert supervisors to safety violations for immediate correction.

Public relations and marketing

Written communication and conversation will always be valuable assets, but clients and stakeholders also want to see things for themselves. Drones can document projects from scouting a site to cutting the ribbon. Conversely, if a project is experiencing delays or other issues, photography can help to chronicle this as well.

It also goes without saying that images can do wonders for presentations and marketing materials. Drones capture truly stunning aerial panoramas that showcase in-progress and completed work. These are great for internal presentations (both aesthetically and for visual proof) and can add an extra dimension to your marketing materials, your website, brochures, and even social media.

Wrapping up

In the coming years — months, really — drones and other autonomous robotics platforms will be one-touch, and even no-touch machines, deploying automatically when you want them to. Though right now we might look up at drones because they represent a new dimension of machine, they’ll soon be out of sight, out of mind, and you’ll only be concerned with looking down at the data in your hands. To quickly recap this paper, here are the ways Hangar drone systems are impacting the construction industry now, and where we expect we’ll be in the future.

  • Full autonomy, camera to cloud
  • Precision photo and data analytics, on demand
  • Records of site progress; comparison over time
  • Resource and contractor tracking
  • Precise visuals for proving bonding capacity
  • Tagged data for use in claims and litigation
  • Sharp, interactive visual aides for PR, internal presentations, and marketing
  • Machine learning, AI, and predictive maintenance

Thanks for reading!

— This article was written with Roger Sollenberger.

Oren John Schauble

Written by

Stting on the cutting edge of digital storytelling and emerging tech. Partner at Guinn Partners.

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