Case Study:

Drones Building ROI at Construction Sites

DroneDeploy's Blog
Published in
9 min readSep 1, 2015

I got my first hammer at 2 years old.

It was small, brightly colored, and made of plastic. I wanted to build something with it. I did my best and hammered the heck out of anything I could find—stairs, walls, dad’s leg, sister’s head—it didn't matter what it was, I was intent on putting that hammer to work.

It was years later until I found out the true utility of that tool.

In (somewhat) similar fashion, drones have started to be put to work on construction sites throughout the world.

Through some trial and error, the value of a fast and affordable aerial view of construction projects is quickly becoming apparent.

Few people are realizing this better than Dale Parrish of Hover Visions.

The information below was given to us during an interview with Dale Parrish, owner and chief pilot at Hover Visions, a drone service company out of Oklahoma. Dale is a 30 year veteran of the fire service, a professional pilot with over 400 hours of flight time, and a FAA section 333-holding drone operator. Dale’s primary drone is a DJI Inspire 1, powered by DroneDeploy. Dale’s client in this case study is Aerial Data Service, Inc. out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Click to explore the maps below (open in a new tab):

DroneDeploy 3D model: 1 million faces, 514.4k vertices

The story

2 years ago, Dale Parrish dreamt of what could be done with drones when he got his first DJI Phantom

Having grown up a farm boy, he instinctively set his sights first on using drones in agriculture.

At the time however, there weren't any good agriculturally-focused software solutions that could transform his drone into the true farm tool that he needed.

That changed in early 2015 when Dale discovered DroneDeploy — and is “totally happy” he did.

Not content with stopping at agriculture, Dale leveraged DroneDeploy to quickly transition his business focus to another industry he has tons of experience in: construction.

As Dale learned, the construction industry has been primed and ready for drones to make their appearance for quite some time now.

Pushing Cushing into the spotlight

Cushing, OK — the pipeline crossroads of the world

Cushing, Oklahoma

  • 7.6 sq. miles | 7,800 inhabitants
  • 85 million barrels of crude oil storage available
  • 3.57 billion potential gallons of crude
Image by David Housh, Tulsa World

Cushing is the largest oil storage facility on the planet, eloquently described as a “vital transshipment point with many intersecting pipelines, storage facilities and easy access to refiners and suppliers.”

So whether you're a fan of pipelines or not, Cushing is, without doubt, the epicenter of the oil pipeline world and a hotbed for new construction projects by big energy companies like Enbridge; Enterprise Products; Explorer Pipeline; Jayhawk; Magellan Midstream Partners; Plains All American Pipeline; Sunoco; and Valero Energy.

Dale has ties to (and lives a one hour drive from) Cushing. He used his connections and rode his solid rep to score a 5 month contract using his drone to provide imagery of an in-progress oil storage construction site twice per month — equating to a total of 10 drone flights.

The scope

What’s the going on in Cushing?

In his day-to-day, Dale would overhear oil storage project managers (PM) around town complaining that they couldn't get their oversight work done, meaning they just didn't have enough time in the day to properly oversee their many construction projects.

The image below gives you the sense of scale that Dale and his clients deal with. These construction sites are huge in scope and are difficult for the project manager to accurately keep tabs on:

The stairs give perspective to the size of the massive storage tanks in Cushing —potential storage capacity of ~3.5 million barrels of oil

The time shortage problem for the PM is exacerbated by various factors; sheer size being one. Another issue that cannot be ignored in the large-scale construction industry is the relatively high turnover-rate of employees.

It’s not uncommon for workers in construction to move from company to company.

This causes employee shortages and when it happens, a PM can be required to monitor 30% more jobs than normal. By using drones, Dale eliminates this extra stress by providing fast, conclusive information.

So, why use drones for construction monitoring?

On a typical duty day, a project manager visits their various construction sites and verifies the workers have all required equipment, checks general progress, and sees that things are generally being done so that the company can meet the minimum standards of tolerance set by the law.

Compliance with the law

Federal law requires that each oil storage tank have proper build-up and dykes of certain size that surround the tanks. These dykes are in place so that in the very rare case of a tank breaking, the resulting spillage would be completely held within the dyke and the entire area of oil would be physically contained.

It turns out that the quick 3D models Dale produces using DroneDeploy are an incredible resource for these projects.

~1.03 billion gallons of oil storage in just 0.5 square miles of Cushing, OK

More important than getting a view of the actual in-progress tank assembly, the 3D model effectively shows the dirt work surrounding the tanks. Engineers can tell they've done more than necessary to appease the federal regulations.

Drones are incredibly convenient, allowing for thorough data collection

In these scenarios, the drone is not actually taking place of someone visiting the site but rather supplementing that by having them not need to visit as much. This helps construction companies save on travel expenses, employee per diem cost, vehicle maintenance, wear and tear, etc.

Currently, standard practice for obtaining aerial imagery of construction sites is to use manned airplanes or helicopters. We'll break down the cost savings and comparison on that in the Savings section below.

The flight

We'll focus on just the first flight Dale made as he will be repeating the exact same flight plan nine more times.

A DJI Inspire 1 drone, the aircraft that Dale uses

The construction site in question is 18 acres in size and is covered in one flight of just 8 minutes with a DJI Inspire 1. Setup time for the Inspire 1 is less than 10 minutes, including planning the flight with the DroneDeploy Android app.

With just a couple taps on his mobile device, Dale’s Inspire 1 takes off automatically and executes the flight plan while taking photos of the construction site below. Zero additional input is required by Dale.

Click below for an animated gif playback of Dale’s 8 minute DroneDeploy flight with his Inspire 1 (playback is sped up by quite a bit):

Dale packed up his drone, drove home, and uploaded the 66 captured images into his DroneDeploy dashboard from a web browser.

From there, DroneDeploy began automatically crunching the images together to form all of the required data outputs that were to be delivered to Dale’s client — orthomosaic, digital surface model, and 3D model.

18 acres, 66 images, 8 minute flight

Analyzing the data

Total DroneDeploy processing time for all outputs was 66 minutes

Data outputs included the orthomosaic, digital surface model, and the high resolution 3D model.

Click here to explore the orthomosaic.

Click here to explore the digital surface model (DSM).

Click here to explore the 3D model of the construction site.

Since DroneDeploy is browser-based, Dale is able to share this data with his client by simply emailing a link. The client is then able to log in, view the data, and export it to their own local machine if needed.

The client does not need any special software, a high-powered computer, or ever even have to touch an external hard drive.

As previously stated, the most important aspect of these drone flights is the ability to easily visualize the dyke and dirt containment work progress in the 3rd dimension.

The digital surface model (DSM) of the construction site (that you should have clicked on above) shows the dark blue areas that most of the attention is drawn to when reviewing the aerial information:

Dark blue areas highlighted in black emphasize sections where the construction must comply with federal spillage containment regulations

Going even further, the 3D model (created from the same flight) allows Dale’s client to get an orbital view of the entire site where they can do more than just verify dyke progress — they can go as far as seeing variations in the dirt patterns that give an idea of where work is being done:

HD 3D dirt on the construction site, available in 66 minutes
Walls (green) and valleys (pink) of the in-progress construction site drainage containment area from the 3D model


Annotation screenshot shown in DroneDeploy map screen

Lastly, we can take the power of the cloud one step further by adding annotations directly to the maps using in-browser DroneDeploy tools.

Toggle annotations off and on by clicking on the eye icon in the lower right hand corner of the map viewer screen. With annotations you can measure distances, areas, create polygons, and place identifying markers in-browser that can then be easily shared and commented on.


Helicopters are expensive

Before Dale and his drone, the client hired helicopters to collect aerial imagery since they could hover in a specific spot to get the required shots. Unfortunately, helicopters can only provide a select few, single-shot aerial photos — no 3D model, interactive map, or digital surface model.

They're also notoriously expensive.

Photo by Romain Claris

Dale’s client would normally have paid a helicopter company to take the aerial photos of this construction site 2 times per month, for 5 months. With a cost of $600 per flight, the total cost to hire a helicopter would have been $6,000 over 5 months.

Since Dale is using a drone, he’s much more affordable.

Charging between $1,000–$2,000 for the entire 5 month job, the drone allows Dale to give his client large savings.

In addition to getting the same photos from Dale’s drone that the client gets with a helicopter, DroneDeploy allows Dale to provide the orthomosaic, digital surface model, and 3D model — extra information the client never had access to with the helicopter.

The client is super thrilled — they are saving $5,000 for the entire job ($1,000 per month savings), getting the same individual aerial images they are used to, not having to send out project managers as often, plus reaping the benefits of the additional DroneDeploy map information.

Extrapolating this across another 4 construction sites raises total savings to $25,000

Insights revealed

Drones bring big value to construction

  1. Dale’s drone has brought him new business opportunities and is already showing positive ROI
  2. The construction company is getting enhanced information at cheaper prices
  3. The project managers on the construction sites are recovering lost time and increasing efficiency

By Ian Smith, Sales & Marketing @DroneDeploy, Commercial helicopter pilot

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