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Drones & HVACR: Combining Technologies To Generate Success

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More and more companies are discovering the benefits of using drones for commercial purposes – and those in the construction industry are no exception.

“Thousands of businesses large and small, and across industries are embracing unmanned aircraft systems technology and integrating UAS into their operations,” says Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “UAS are able to capture images and measurements in difficult-to-reach or dangerous places, saving time, money and even lives, making them a valuable tool for many businesses.”

An AUVSI study found that over the next decade, the UAS industry stands to create more than 100,000 jobs and over $82 billion in economic impact in the U.S. – many of them in the construction industry.

Federal Regulations

“Under a regulatory environment that allows for expanded operations, such as flights over people or beyond line of sight, there is no doubt these numbers could go even higher and even more businesses could tap into the tremendous potential of this technology,” Wynne says.

In August, 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration issued the “Small UAS Rule” spelling out flying requirements for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. Since then, demand for commercial drones has “increased tremendously” according to AUVSI, and as of March, more than 150,000 platforms have been registered with the FAA for commercial use. The agency expects more than 450,000 drones to be flying for commercial purposes over the next five years, three times as many as today.

AUVSI also conducted an analysis of the first 1,074 waivers granted by the FAA to fly drones beyond what is allowed under current regulations – such as flying beyond line of sight of the operator, flying at night, or flying multiple drones simultaneously. The association’s analysis found that aerial photography is the most popular commercial use for drones (79 percent), followed by activities for real estate purposes (56 percent), aerial inspection (50 percent), construction (47 percent), and infrastructure inspection and surveying (43 percent). Other uses include training, security, search and rescue, among other applications.

Of the first 1,074 waivers issued, nighttime operations were by far the most popular (959 waivers), followed by waivers to fly in certain airspace (96 waivers), operate multiple drones at the same time (17 waivers), fly beyond line of sight (4 waivers) and conduct flights over people (3 waivers).

3D Modeling

Joe Nichter, president of Comfort Systems USA Southwest in Chandler, AZ, says that nearly all the general contractors his company works with on commercial and industrial construction jobsites now have drones. Most of them use drones for land surveying and marketing, and to show the progress of the job to the customers and the lending institution, and some are using them for safety inspections.

“The pictures from the drones are often combined with 3D models for augmented reality and virtual reality, so customers and contractors can walk through projects virtually, looking to make sure each trades installation matches the BIM model and meets quality requirements laid out in the specification,” Nichter says.

For land surveying, drones are used for topographical mapping, which are currently being used by developers, land planners and civil engineers on projects, he says. For example, when laying out a large mixed-use community with residential, commercial and retail, drones are flown over the plat to look at the different elevations and possible obstructions on the site. The data gathered from the drones is then used in the 3D model.

“This allows the planner and engineer to develop a conceptual plan that can be presented to the developer and city to get approval for the planned project,” Nichter says. “Once approved this model is used as a marketing tool to solicit investors, realtors and tenants to participate in the development. In addition these 3D models can be used as twin models one being used to test changes, before they are actually incorporated into the actual project. “

Inspections & Surveying

For safety inspections, drones currently fly around the building’s envelope to monitor activities and see if there are any safety violations that could possibly contribute to a jobsite injury, he says. In fact, “nano drones” are in the testing stage — very small drones that can fly through floors of a building during construction to detect problems.

“I’m not concerned about such drones causing a safety issue themselves, as algorithms are loaded into the drone to make them fly very precisely around structures,” Nichter says. “The more artificial intelligence data that becomes available the more precise this process will become.”

General contractors also use the pictures from drones in pre-job planning meetings, showing the layout of the jobsite and where all the trades’ trailers are going to be adjacent to the site, he says. During the job, drones are used to make sure the project is moving along according to schedule. Drones may also one day be used to transport small parts to floors of a building, as soon as they have the capacity to lift more weight.

“I can see uses for drones not just on the construction side, but also on the service side of the business,” Nichter says. “Drones are being tested in Europe to fly over groups of building to make thermal maps. The maps are then put into software so that heat losses of buildings are compared to other buildings. That can be a potential energy efficiency solution for us to show customers.”

Drones could also be used by Comfort Systems’ sales people to survey roofs. As HVAC equipment comes out with bar codes, drones could be used to scan a bar code on a piece of equipment, which will give the salesperson a good picture of what’s on the building for maintenance.

“Anything we can do to incorporate technology to reduce labor is good, as the construction industry continues to face a great shortage of workers,” he says. “We have to be open, to this new wave of construction solutions.”

Nichter cites studies showing that implementation of drone technology has the potential to improve onsite productivity by up to 10 percent.

“This is only the beginning for this untapped potential created through new technology,” he says, adding that in 2015 there were just 31 start-up tech companies investing in new solutions for construction, and now that number has jumped to 2,200.

“At this rate of growth many new innovative ideas will produce cost effective solutions to help us overcome the crippling manpower shortage we are experiencing today,” Nichter says.

Marketing With Drones

Brian Rogers, corporate secretary at Rogers & Sons Inc. in Denver, CO, says that one of the company’s equipment suppliers with a new controls product used a drone on a school construction project to take pictures for an extended infomercial. Rogers & Sons Inc. also used the infomercial to show its own customers about the new controls system, because the supplier also included interviews from some of the company’s team members who worked on that job.

“The pictures you get from a drone are just so remarkable because there is a mechanism in the camera that takes out the shake even when the drone may not be flying that smoothly,” Rogers says. “You would be able to get that kind of quality picture from above unless you used a helicopter or airplane, which is much more expensive than a drone.”

When the rules for flying drones commercially “finally get sorted out,” Rogers & Sons may also use drones, but the company would hire a third-party who is licensed and insured to fly them. The drones would most likely be used to get pictures for marketing purposes, as well as for footage in internal training videos – just like the areas’ local apprenticeship program did for a virtual reality safety training program.

“As far as using drones on a jobsite, there might be safety issues if they are not used properly – but I’ve heard about frequency blockers that would blast out a frequency to drop a drone,” he says.

Rogers was part of the group working with AUVSI who was invited to one of the association’s recent shows to learn more about how drones could benefit contractors.

“I was certainly curious to go and participate,” he says. “I’m on the conservative side regarding technology. I might not run out and immediately do this, but it’s a fascinating world out there that I would consider it.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Posted In: Technology

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