Potential Applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems for Construction Management Tasks

drone.gifUnmanned Aerial System (UAS), commonly known as drones, have been recently featured in the mainstream media for not so positive reasons. However, we argue that the many positive uses, including in the construction industry, can outweigh the negative ones. These aerial vehicles do not carry a pilot, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely. This system includes a portable control station for the operator and one or more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The UAVs can collect and process data through various sensors, such as video or still cameras, including far and near infrared, radar or laser based range finders, or specialized communication devices. Most UASs are capable of real-time data transfer between the UAV(s) and the control station; some have additional on-board data storage capabilities for enhanced data collection tasks. UASs can perform tasks similar to those that can be done by manned aerial vehicles, but often faster, safer, and at a lower cost.

UASs have been used to perform inspections of inaccessible areas in forests, monitoring soil erosion, monitoring forest fires, and creating 3D models. Other possible applications of UASs include monitoring or inspecting work in construction and infrastructure, for example, bridge inspections, and construction safety inspections on jobsites. Some U.S. State Departments of Transportation (DOT) are leading UAS application and implementation research, such as Utah DOT and Georgia DOT.

Even with the research that has been done, there are still gaps in our understanding of the particular uses and value of the data that can be collected with these systems. We have focused our efforts in understanding the use and value of images collected with UASs for Construction Management (CM) tasks, such as project progress, jobsite logistics, and quality or safety inspection. Therefore, identifying potential applications of these images is critical to understanding the potential of this emerging technology. Our research group at Georgia Tech conducted UAS test flights at four construction project sites to collect images, followed by interviews with project personnel to collect their perception of the benefits and usefulness of those images.

The exploratory study of the application of UAS-based images for construction management tasks began with a comprehensive review of applications of UASs in various fields. This step provided us with an understanding of the possible uses of images as well as revealing gaps in the understanding of the particular use and value of UAS images for construction management tasks. In order to pursue the goal of our study, we conducted test flights with the UAS to collect images including both still images and videos. The four projects used in this study included three projects in Atlanta, Georgia and one project in the city of Salvador in Brazil. The selected projects included an academic office building, a research building, a school, and a residential high-rise building project. Site visits for obtaining images and testing the UAS were between one and five times per project site from the months of May to November 2014, and each visit lasted between 30 minutes and one hour. We used a consumer grade UAS for the collection of images since we believe that most industry professionals would opt for this option since they are simpler to operate.

From the images collected, we created an image library and we chose a subset of the images for use in interviews with project personnel. A total of 200 images were collected during the seven-month period. The selection of images resulted in an acceptable mix of image types, including photos and videos from a respondent’s project and not from a respondent’s project to reduce bias related to project familiarity. A subset of 15 images was selected for the interviews (eight videos and seven photos). We developed a questionnaire which aimed at collecting the necessary data about respondent