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Safety takes off

16 June 2021

The PwC’s membership network report, Skies without Limits, recently revealed that drone technology is expected to uplift the UK’s construction industry by £8.6 bn by 2030. This growth was largely attributed to innovation and improved productivity. As drone technology becomes more sophisticated, Ian Barnes shares his thoughts on the benefits of drones and the positive impact they can have.

IN THE last few years, improvements in drone and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) technology has changed how we use them — they are no longer viewed as just high-tech toys. The use of drones has particularly increased in the construction industry to help businesses improve health and safety, accuracy and productivity. Additionally, as purchase and set up costs gradually decrease to make the technology more affordable, more construction and civil engineering businesses can benefit from the technology. 

There are several benefits of using drones on site, such as improving survey accuracy of large areas without difficulty, improved methods of collecting and sharing data and benefits to health and safety, such as reducing avoidable injuries on site and improving working conditions. Improving these areas can help companies keep their infrastructure projects on track, reduce accidents and avoid costly delays. Let’s take a closer look at some of their benefits. 

Progress tracking

According to a study from Engineers Daily, design errors account for 38 percent of construction disputes. Inaccurate and incomplete designs can push projects behind schedule and over budget as confusion mounts. Progress tracking in drones can limit these issues by capturing highly accurate site data. Contractors simply fly the drone to collect data when required, meaning that there’s no need to halt construction work to complete surveys. Collected data can then be uploaded to a cloud-based platform where contractors can access the data anywhere, anytime and easily interpret the information. 

“Civil contractors and surveyors can use drone technology to produce weekly progress reports to share across the company and with stakeholders,” explained Jan Wouter Kruyt, Director of European Operations at Propeller, who teamed up with SITECH to develop the Trimble Stratus® drone package. “More accurate progress tracking can boost overall efficiency while minimising disputes that can often derail projects. For instance, contractors can highlight the parts of a site that they are excavating and provide an estimate of how long this will take and plan the next stages of construction accordingly.”

Mapping sites

As well as surveying, innovations in drone software now allow contractors to produce detailed 3D maps and models using the data and site footage that they gather from flights. This highly accurate site data can cut costs because the detailed visualisations help teams align their activities and reduce the risk of design errors that require rework later down the line. For example, Trimble® Stratus, powered by Propeller, uses a data analytics and visualisation platform to capture geo-referenced high-resolution aerial images. All the contractor needs to do is lay out their ground control points and fly a drone, enabling them to perform highly accurate topographic surveys without causing bottlenecks.

As with progress tracking, when 3D mapping is combined with a suitable analytics platform, you can communicate this data across your team and with third parties. Contractors can store and share a single source of truth across the cloud instead of running around with a pencil and a piece of paper. Improved digital mapping also means that every member of the team is aware of the site’s landscape, is working from the same information and immediately receives any updates. Instead of taking hours, or even days to cover the site on foot, all you need to do is fly the drone — providing a real field-to-finish solution for mapping sites.

Health and safety

According to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) annual report in 2019, slips, trips and falls were the second highest cause of injuries and fatalities in the UK construction industry, with over 1,000 of these incidents causing dislocated joints or fractured bones. Onsite hazards are easy to avoid if appropriate area management is in place and access to dangerous parts of the site is limited to authorised personnel and only when necessary. 

However, using remote equipment, like drones, allows risky parts of the site to be quickly assessed by surveyors without them manually collecting data using pegs and string, removing the need for employees to access potentially dangerous areas. Remote data collection allows appropriate area management to be implemented and ultimately improves the safety for operators working on the site. 

Some sites also have dangerous structures or flammable materials that workers should avoid. Instead of sending out engineers with pegs, operators can stay at a safe distance and easily fly the drone over the area to collect data, saving the surveyor time and minimising risk in the process. 

An additional safety issue drones can address is working at height, which continues to be one of the major causes of fatality in the construction industry, making up nearly 50 per cent of total fatal injuries in 2016–2017. Ineffective or unsecure edge protection, ladders and scaffolding pose a large risk to workers and surveyors assessing site progress. Instead, surveyors can track the progress of the project remotely on the ground using a drone. Drones reduce the number of people climbing to dangerous heights and therefore the potential fatalities each year. 

Remote technology 

As drone technology becomes more sophisticated and accessible to contractors, it could deliver real productivity benefits while minimising risk to workers. It is hardly surprising that the construction industry expects a £8.6 bn lift over the next ten years because of these innovations. 

The pandemic means construction sites are adapting in many ways — drones are not the only new piece of remote technology impacting site health and safety. A fully connected approach that combines drones, machine control technology and design software allow changes to be wirelessly and automatically communicated between the site and the office. 

Alongside the health and safety benefits, there are productivity and performance benefits. For example, everyone is working to the most up-to-date design, so once the operator has selected the new design, they will be able to monitor the correct cut and fill values in near real-time. Automation will reduce human error, reducing the risk of over digging into an underground high-pressure pipe, which could cause catastrophic damage to the site, equipment and operators. 

Remote technology advances are also being made in the digger and dozer industries. Excavators and dozers can now be operated with remote control-consoles and line-of-sight technology to give effective equipment control from over 400 metres away. This distance means operators have less exposure to dust, noise and vibration, ultimately improving their working environment and reducing the health and safety risks.

An exciting development for the demolition industry is dozers that have fully remote operator stations and can be operated without a view of the site. Demolition sites are commonly hazardous and carry a high risk of site injuries. The new stations are built to replicate the cab environment and can connect to a machine anywhere in the world via wireless network, making it easy for the operator to use, and extremely safe. 

Drone technology brings clear health and safety benefits for the workforce, alongside productivity benefits to a construction project — a win-win situation. Combining multiple technologies to create a fully connected site enables greater control, data supported decision making, more autonomous work, higher levels of site safety and a better working environment. 

Drone flights and data processing provided in an easy-to-use package is just one of the services developed by SITECH to support the digital worksite. 

Ian Barnes is director at SITECH UK & Ireland. For more information, visit www.sitechukandireland.com/sitech-drone-services