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Aerial drones, new tech changes scope of construction engineering


A file photo of an aerial drone (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

By Thomas A. Barstow, BridgeTower Media Newswires 

Engineering work that used to take weeks or months to complete can now be done in matter of hours or days because of the advances in drone technology, as well as programs that can improve everything from the sales and marketing to the construction process.

“Drones can survey sites in about 30 minutes to an hour and get a pretty good sense of the topography and the environmental situation, as well as get good data,” said William J. Sutton II, vice president of consumer experience with Mowery Construction in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “In the past, it would take a week or two to survey a property and to find boundaries and things like that.”

At any given time, Sutton said, Mowery has about 20 projects going, and the efficiencies found with drones has led the company to hire 10 certified drone pilots. They are kept busy doing pre-construction and survey work, as well as keeping stakeholders informed about the progress of projects.

But drones are just one of several modern technologies that have greatly improved the overall engineering and construction process, Sutton and others said. From virtual reality programs to Building Information Modeling to scheduling systems such as Procore, engineers and contractors are finding that one group of people, in particular, are thrilled about the advances — their customers.

“Drones are invaluable for communicating with clients,” Sutton said. “But we also do a lot with virtual reality. You are able to walk a client through a virtual environment and allow them to see and feel the space. Probably one of the most challenging things for our clients is to get them to visualize the design — what it will look and feel like — and this is just now allowing us to do that.”

In a virtual reality exterior scan for one of Mowery’s commercial clients, viewers got a panoramic view of the entire building as if they were a bird flying around it. The interior shots enabled viewers to navigate the corridors and offices — walking through doors, up steps and in and out of rooftop exterior spaces — as if they were on an actual tour in a building still was in the design phase.

“It’s really cool,” Sutton said. “We can change colors [and] textures, and at the end of the day you are going to have a customer who is really happy with their space. In the past, you might have someone walk on a site during construction and say that they didn’t realize that this bulkhead or wall or door was in the wrong place, and that can be costly to change once you started. Now, we can make those adjustments up front.”

Those details also help some clients with their capital campaigns, where organizers can show potential donors what a facility will actually look like and how it will flow.

“People will get excited,” Sutton said.

Time savers

Brandon Motuk, the past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers for Central Pennsylvania, pointed out that many people have difficulty understanding construction drawings, so the newer technologies can be a true selling point to clients. They can see how different colors or elevations will play off each other.

“With drawings, most people have a hard time seeing what will translate into 3D,” said Motuk, who also is a project manager with Quandel Construction Group in Mechanicsburg. “When you have a virtual 3D model, where you can walk around it, it can give you a whole new sense of depth and how the project will work.”

Sutton and Motuk both pointed out that technologies such as BIM also save time and money because of the 3D capabilities in the design process. Before, various project subcontractors —electrical, plumbing, HVAC and others — would work from printed plans and try to ascertain the best ways to avoid interfering with each other’s work. As jobs got underway, inevitable conflicts might delay a project until the issues were worked out. With BIM, problems can be seen before construction starts and resolved before workers go on the job site.

“Any questions or issues can then be cleared up in a virtual meeting or in person. We can see any clashes well in advance of breaking ground,” Motuk said. “It just saves a ton of time and costs as well.”

Motuk also pointed out that drones greatly improve safety, in addition to the time and efficiency savings. Drones can eliminate the need to access a dangerous piece of property or get up on ladders or scaffolding for inspections. He pointed to issues with bridge inspections, saying the safety improvements are clearly demonstrated by using drones.

“It basically helps with getting photos of things that you normally would have to get by some piece of machinery or ladders or something of that nature,” Motuk said.

Drones keep gaining popularity for many reasons, said David Heath, executive director of the PA Drone association, which has 53 members statewide. Most of the members are companies such as engineers and contractors, utility companies and cell phone carriers, he said. Before drones, high costs presented an entry barrier to getting aerial surveillance. With drones, the costs are much lower and the rewards greater. For engineers and contractors, drones keep proving their worth, Heath said.

“You have to think of a drone as a data collector,” he said. “It is able to provide a lot of information for very important process work.”

The drone industry is so new that it continually must adapt to new regulations, including questions about where federal and state agencies and municipalities have jurisdiction. The Federal Aviation Administration oversees activities over air space, but the rules still are being written as the drone industry matures. The FAA, for example, recently finalized a rule that requires drones to have remote identification — also known as a digital license plate — so the machines can be better tracked.

Also, the technology keeps improving as drones add more advanced sensors that can do everything from taking detailed measurements of what is on the ground to surveying boundaries to detecting heat loss in buildings and pinpointing where insulation might be needed, Heath and others said.

“The technology is always changing,” Heath said.

The Future

The constant developments with the various technologies are exciting, and Mowery is always looking for new ways to improve, Sutton said. Another tool called Procure puts all project relationships in one spot for the whole team to view from any location.

Mowery has been working on prototypes for newer technologies with a partnership at the Harrisburg University Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Pennsylvania. Stakeholders are working with the university’s faculty, staff and students to develop technologies in construction and the surrounding fields, Sutton said.

“Their initial project revolves around automated intelligence and scheduling of construction projects,” he said.

Another innovation prospered during the pandemic and changed the way engineers and others will interact going forward — the virtual meeting through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or other conferencing platforms, Motuk said. The pandemic revealed how underused such platforms were and has proven how much time and energy they can save, he said.

“It provides a level of time savings we couldn’t even quantify before,” said Motuk, adding that he frequently used to drive several hours to have a one-hour meeting.

Unlike a conference call in which you might not be clear on who is speaking, virtual meetings allow people to see everyone who is participating and to pull up drawings or otherwise interact in ways that are nearly ideal, he said.

“It’s like you’re there with all the people,” he said.

There is no replacement for important face-to-face meetings when that is required, he added. But for routine updates or weekly meetings, “COVID forced us all into that,” he said. “I can’t imagine going back completely.”