Advancing Construction Operations With Drone Technology And LiDAR

When combined with artificial intelligence and LiDAR remote sensing, drones can have transformative applications in the construction industry.

drone technology
Adobe Stock/ zephyr_p
By Akshay Chaand

Drone technology is rapidly advancing and significantly enhancing business operations across various industries. Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), these devices offer unique capabilities and advantages that can improve efficiency, safety, data collection, and decision-making processes in the public and private sectors. Also, they can have transformative applications in the construction industry when combined with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) for image processing tools and LiDAR remote sensing.

Examples of the more impactful drone uses for practical facility management purposes include site surveying and mapping, construction monitoring and inspection, progress tracking and documentation, inventory and asset management, and data capture. By understanding drone technology and implementing it into ongoing projects, industry professionals can maximize their expertise for efficient resource utilization while offering better customer service.

LiDAR Technology Overview

LiDAR, or “light detection and ranging,” is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges of variable distances. Most commonly found on airplanes and helicopters and thus conveniently applicable with drones, LiDAR generates precise, three-dimensional imaging to provide its users with valuable visuals. Although the use of LiDAR today has evolved into a precise measurement modality, the laser capabilities it’s created from were essentially discovered without a singular purpose.

In 1960 there was an arms race between scientists to create the world’s first laser. American physicist Theodore Harold Maiman was credited with this invention when he was able to harness energy within a synthetic ruby crystal before it was released as a highly focused, highly energized beam. Despite reportedly being interested in using his patented laser for medical purposes and other disciplines, he refused to produce it commercially. During the 1970s, LiDAR began to be used in the aerospace industry and became more accessible in the mid-1990s when GPS became available for public use.

The adoption of this technology has taken a circuitous route for today’s facility managers. With the release of Apple’s iPhone 12 in October 2020, LiDAR scanning was within smartphones, exposing more individuals to its capabilities for various purposes. When utilized in a camera lens for imaging, infrared dots are sent out through waves of light. Each dot has a sensor that then creates a map of points for measuring distances and dimensions. The feature allows developers to fuse virtual objects and the real world, however, the LiDAR quality of the smartphone was not sustainable at the professional level. The mesh output by these scanners wasn’t accurate enough to measure objects or send them to a 3-D printer. Interest was piqued, and more professionals began investing their interest in LiDAR scanners, which comes at a much greater cost. This expense has delayed the potential widespread adoption of LiDAR throughout the industry.

Still, the use of drones with LiDAR scanner support, in general, has grown exponentially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, primarily due to the sudden lack of opportunities to review site plans and progress updates with customers when social distancing restrictions were in effect. Drones proved to be a beneficial option to record onsite updates and distribute them virtually to customers. They ultimately proved a cost-effective way for facility management to acquire data more efficiently, allowing project and facility managers to survey sites and produce aerial views for historical documentation and inspection purposes.

Advantages Of LiDAR Technology In Facility Management

Drones effectively reduce costs related to scaling high-rise sites to inspect and document repair work, such as leaky roofs, blocked drains, damaged vents, and foundation concerns. In the pre-construction phase, drones can assist with surveying and other site-management needs and land inspections to ensure no untoward surprises in the construction phase. LiDAR scanners can also generate mesh point clouds that can collate large numbers of single spatial measurements into datasets that represent objects or space. Point cloud data can enhance the accuracy of measuring site angles, depth, and area scanning while adding value to customers through better measurements and inspections with less liability.

Drones and scanners also play a significant role in the building information modeling (BIM) lifecycle from design and planning to construction, operations, and maintenance by helping to create a 3-D mesh model of a building and the foundation. The elevated views of the building help measure property boundaries. These 3-D models combined with the original computer-aided design (CAD) can help detect any discrepancies between the models to get a side-by-side view of the real and BIM models. This can help diagnose structural defects early in the BIM lifecycle and avoid additional costs incurred by developers. An additional advantage includes surveying in areas that would otherwise be too dangerous for sending workers into for manual inspections.

Regulatory Issues And Use Cases

In reference to drones, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), all drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds must be registered. The FAA also upholds regulations that govern the flying of the “aircraft.” The International Electrotechnical Commission oversees the safety of laser products about such factors as emissions. Other regulatory bodies that control the use of these technologies in the United States include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the United States Geological Survey, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Building Safety Act of 2022 also created a new regulatory regime and a new safety regulator role for all construction work on any building. With drones and LiDAR imaging, documentation can support the “Golden Thread” to maintain vital information to safeguard building owners and tenants. It’s possible that these concepts could be brought to the United States.

Key Questions To Ask

There are a few important factors to consider when evaluating drone and LiDAR assets, including:

  • How accurate are products/applications capturing data? Ensuring data accuracy is crucial as more professionals rely on advanced technology for customer service assistance.
  • How do different devices integrate with other applications? Different technologies pair differently with various applications. Processes should be tested before being introduced to customers.
  • What are the implications of any documentation for application programming interface (API) development? APIs can aid data exchange if the functionality is appropriate and security measures are implemented.
  • Do costs validate the need for value addition per the facility’s budget? The cost of advanced technologies today can be quite expensive, but the result could justify the investment if the budget allows.

Any device should integrate with other applications to share data across platforms to increase the value to customers. Some scanners perform more effectively than others and should be evaluated on such factors as the field of view.

Predicting The Future For Facility Management

With the increasing complexity of facility design and construction, as well as the demand for efficient problem-solving through the use of advanced technologies, drones, and LiDAR scanners are expected to be trendsetters for the construction industry. The elevated images captured with this technology will become an integrated part of facility inspections, operations, and management in the near future. Customers can access historical data and remotely see their buildings from the inside out at any time. It will become more common for LiDAR scanners to be utilized with land surveys, inspections, and management without risking human lives. Insurance claims will also be more manageable, and premiums will likely be subject to discounts among deductibles and other refund benefits when these technologies are implemented. An additional advantage of the implementation of this technology could be a reduction in insurance premiums and claims.

Drones combined with LiDAR scanners will further improve the inspection of facility sites and enhance the availability and accessibility of data. Despite associated costs, implementing drone and LiDAR technologies will continue to become more ingrained as the benefits of reduced safety risks to employees are experienced. Companies that invest in these assets and adopt their practices based on these tools will continue to reap the rewards for their businesses and customers.

Chaand is an IT product manager, software developer, electronics engineer, and subject matter expert with a strong background in healthcare, construction tech, integrations, and Dev/QA software development. With more than 14 years of experience in technical product management, agile leadership, and cloud engineering, he is also skilled in market research, product roadmap development, and data analysis. 

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