Having a visual map or model of a site or building can be invaluable when planning new developments, managing complex construction projects, or responding to a natural disaster. Until recently, we were heavily reliant on limited, and often outdated data provided by council-funded aerial photography, regional LiDAR and Google imagery. But all that is changing.

Drone technology is advancing rapidly. Every month a new offering appears with improved capabilities – from the machines themselves, to the sensors they carry, their power, flight control systems, and software applications. By leveraging this technology, we now have the ability to capture and transform fresh, highly detailed, accurate data into powerful 3D maps and virtual models.

These insights are improving the way projects are designed, managed, and delivered – impacting everything from town planning, construction monitoring and asset management, to site inspections and disaster recovery.

Here are our top 5 ways drones can add value to your project:

5. Comprehensive mapping for large-scale planning

Drones are becoming an integral tool for mapping large projects in North America, Europe and Asia, and we’re seeing this shift happening in New Zealand and Australia too.

Using drones and other sensors, we can now safely map large areas such as construction sites, mines, and even entire townships. Every square centimetre of the land surface can be scanned and transformed into precisely-scaled image maps and 3D models.

These models help inform site selection, assess design options and costing, and can transform a range of tasks including capacity planning, resource consent applications, route mapping, volumetric surveys, earthworks assessments, terrain analysis, risk assessments, and drainage and flood modelling.

Kihikihi Township in New Zealand’s Waikato region has been 'scanned' by drones to support future growth modelling. The left image shows a fresh aerial image-map. The right image shows elevation and terrain features which are used to assess flood risks and available space.

4. Improved construction monitoring and problem-solving

By flying pre-programmed flight paths on a daily or weekly basis, construction progress can be monitored and reviewed against project plans.

Image maps can capture valuable information such as the location of buried utilities, and highlight problems that may impact sequencing, reducing delays and cost over-runs.

With a visual site map, teams can creatively solve construction challenges without having to physically visit the site.

Design plan overlaid on a detailed aerial map captured by drone. Buried utilities were mapped from drone imagery taken during the excavation stage.

3. Substantial time and cost savings using BIM

Taking Building Information Modelling (BIM) to the next level, 3D building models can be linked to time or schedule-related information (BIM 4D), and cost estimates and budgets (BIM 5D). Adding contextual imagery collected by drones on a regular and repeatable basis during construction allows for comprehensive 3D modelling of whole sites including roads, utilities, building facades and roofs.

Linking these drone models to terrestrial laser scans of indoor plant provides true-scaled, as-built models which can be converted to solid objects and tagged into asset management systems.

By switching from drawings to intelligent 3D models, BIM offers substantial time and cost savings, more accurate estimates, and fewer errors, alterations or rework because of lost information.

A digital 3D model of an industrial facility, captured by drone, provides a real-world basis to plan future site upgrades and test scenarios.

2. Safer, simplified site inspections

Drones can simplify the inspection of buildings, rooftops, and hard-to-reach structures.

From the safety of the ground, detailed views of assets can be captured using zoom cameras. And thermal sensors can measure the integrity of pipe welds, roof insulation, power current flows, or check the health of solar panel arrays. This means better insights, delivered quickly, without any risk to people.

By combining drone insights with virtual reality, you can even physically explore new facilities before they’re finalised and constructed. Potential hazards can be identified faster and easier than ever before – without the need to set foot on site.

Virtual reality in action.

1. Faster recovery when disaster strikes

When a slip, flood, or earthquake strikes, drones can be rapidly deployed to capture a situational overview of damage. Within minutes, geotechnical stability can be assessed and potential hazards identified in the form of time-stamped, GPS-tagged aerial photos and video. This critical information can then be shared instantly with teams in various locations.

After an immediate hazard assessment and triage, systematic aerial survey methods can be used to create accurate 2D/3D maps and surface models. Accurate volume measurements can be taken from these models to estimate the time and cost of repairs and recovery.

Earthworks volumes can be accurately calculated from detailed, fresh terrain models. 

Insights that usually take weeks can be delivered in hours. This is invaluable when crews are working under pressure to restore critical highways and transport links.

Surveys can be repeated as often as needed (ideally weekly), by in-field staff who can re-fly a pre-programmed survey path and transmit data for processing. Accurate, dynamic progress reporting eliminates guesswork and puts the project on the front-foot, with stakeholders who are fully informed and on the same page.

An exciting new paradigm

The rapid convergence of drones, geospatial data, BIM and virtual reality is driving a new paradigm, in which entire sites can be scanned in full detail, as often as needed. This information in turn, provides powerfully intelligent visual maps and models.

Armed with these insights, planners and asset managers can make better decisions, plan collaboratively, engage stakeholders, solve problems, reduce risks, safeguard workers, save time and reduce costs on projects.

With technology developing so rapidly, it’s exciting to think what the future holds in this space. How could this technology help you further streamline your developments? How could it help you better envision your future projects?