Drone Technology Improves the Construction Process

  • Sep 10, 2018

This column is featured in Construction Executive magazine.

By Grant Hagen, Virtual Design and Construction Manager

Several times a week, a drone hovers above the future site of Dickies Arena, a 560,000-square-foot, 14,000-seat multipurpose facility in Fort Worth, Texas, which will host livestock shows, rodeos, concerts, sporting events and other forms of entertainment.

Drones, technically known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), gather photo and video footage of the construction site and will help the $550 million project meet its completion date, which is scheduled for late 2019.

The Dickies Arena project, funded under a public-private partnership, is one of a number of commercial projects benefitting from the use of drones, which provide faster, more efficient, higher quality and detailed information of building sites than aerial photos taken from helicopters.



Drones are increasingly gaining acceptance in the construction industry—a business that has been historically slower than others to embrace the latest technologies.

According to government statistics, more than one million drones are buzzing around the nation’s airspace. That number is expected to grow rapidly as more industries use the remote-controlled devices to handle a variety of tasks, from taking videos of commercial and residential real estate properties to measuring crop growth.

A 2016 Goldman Sachs report found construction was the fastest-growing commercial sector using this technology. In the construction industry alone, an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of firms are currently using drones at project sites.

Industry spending on drones is expected to take off in the not-so-distant future, as a result of construction and design firms and their clients reaping the time- and cost-saving benefits of this game-changing technology. Investment in drones for construction is estimated to rise to more than $11 billion by 2021.



Drones provide data-rich information that can significantly lower costs and improve the efficiency and speed of various types of work associated with construction projects, such as land surveying, site and project modeling, progress reporting to clients and inspections. Because of the high level of detail that drones provide on project sites, more construction firms are using drones rather than relying on helicopter pilots to provide aerial documentation.

Drones are even supplementing and replacing technology such as 3D laser scanning in some construction applications. Traditional scanning application uses a beam or laser light to capture shapes of buildings to create an accurate model from various locations using a scanner on the ground. These set ups are then post-processed and registered together to create a point cloud for documentation. This process, while accurate and effective, is time-consuming and limited to the field of view from the scanner on the ground.

Clients, especially those with multiple building assists over many acres, can opt to use drones because they provide high-quality data faster and at a lower cost than laser scanning. Using drone technology opens up new opportunities for efficiency, coverage area and cost-effectiveness without giving up the quality of data captured.



A key factor that has led to increased use of drone aircraft is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rule easing requirements on who can operate drones. The FAA previously required commercial drone operators to obtain a pilot’s license and undergo a lengthy exemption process to operate. However, that rule changed in August 2016, allowing anyone interested in using these tools in a commercial business to operate drones after completing a remote pilot certification through a proctored exam.

However, there are still limitations on how and where this technology can be used for commercial operations. For example, restrictions have been placed on using drones in various airspaces where commercial air traffic operates.

Fortunately, this year, the FAA has developed and implemented a new authorization process, making it easier to obtain faster approval to fly commercial drones in certain airspaces. The authorization process allows commercial drone operations permission to fly in various areas under 400 feet in airspaces near airports. Construction projects often fall in a range of urban environments or controlled airspaces, so this new authorization process opened the door for more projects to use the technology.



As drones become more commonplace at project sites, construction firms are faced with the decision of whether they should own and operate drones or outsource the technology to service providers.

Operating their own drones gives firms more control of how these tools are used at construction sites, but they also need to consider the costs and risks involved in deploying them. Outsourcing may be the solution for some firms, especially smaller ones that may want to avoid drone ownership or don’t have the resources for in-house drone operation.

On the contrary, it may be beneficial for larger companies with resources and needs for using these tools to invest internally. Having a fleet of pilots and equipment to use can produce significant value compared to paying a premium to have the service performed for the company.



Drone technology is truly revolutionizing the construction industry, which is deemed the last frontier in technology disruption. With drone use on the rise, the industry can expect to see lower building costs and delays, higher quality of work installed correctly and an overall improvement in construction projects from start to finish.