The global market value for commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), colloquially known as drones, currently sits at an estimated $552 million, but is estimated to grow into a $4 billion market by 2024–China’s drone industry is expected to reach over $11 billion by 2025. Multi-rotor drones accounted for over 85% of volume share for the drone market in 2015. Though military applications are significantly higher, commercial applications for drones, such as construction, are catching up.
The limitation of drone use, however, stems from the legal ramifications associated with UAVs. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations on drones, the operator must be a licensed pilot, drones cannot exceed 55 pounds, must be limited to 500 feet, and cannot go faster than 100 mph.
For NYC, drone application in construction and building repair is already underway and increasing. Drones are highly effective at surveying, 3D modeling, performing inspections for safety and in places that are difficult or dangerous to reach, and giving real-time progress updates on a job site. Considering the projection of UAVs becoming a multi-billion dollar industry in less than a decade, the non-military application of drones is ever more interesting.
Drones have the ability to capture multiple photographs and videos and transform them into a 3D model. Because they are in flight and remotely operated, drones can survey sites from several different angles. In doing this, drones eliminate the danger associated with human resources in data collection. Chris Anderson, CEO of drone startup 3D Robotics (3DR) and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, said that,
“Capturing site data today is costly, time-consuming and often dangerous. Drones can easily go where it’s inefficient or unsafe for field personnel, making it easier to accurately measure our world so we can better manage it.”
3DR, which raised $99 million in four rounds, has collaborated with Autodesk’s Forge platform, a set of services, APIs, and resources for developers, and the ReCap application, a reality capture and 3D scanning software designed for use with UAVs, to create drones that can build a color 3D model of a build site – meaning that a project manager could check out, monitor, and assess a site without having to physically be there.
For New York City, a city heavy with construction projects – up 300 percent since 2009 – including Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus development, UAVs have applications beyond industry. For emergencies, drones can assist authorities in assessing risk. For example, drones could have been used during Hurricane Sandy to provide video to assess fires and floods, tracking waters and monitoring their retreat, giving a complete map of all of the damage.
“You could have them preprogrammed with the city’s coastline, all the parcel and lot data, and see what’s changed,”
said Henry Jackson, deputy commissioner for technology and strategic resources at the Office of Emergency Management. Drones also have applications for the inspection of bridges, roads, and towers–all for a fraction of the price that a helicopter would cost. In New York Magazine, Jon Ollwerther, COO of Brooklyn-based drone manufacturer Aerobo, said “One of New York’s biggest problems is crumbling infrastructure, and before you can do anything about a problem you have to diagnose it.
Right now you have to dangle people on ropes beneath a bridge, or swing them down from a reverse cherry picker, so they can inspect with mirrors and flashlights. That’s dangerous and costly, and if you’re using a vehicle, you have to block one or even two lanes of traffic on a busy bridge.”
Aerobo is a FAA-approved organization to commercially fly drones. Presently, they support industrial inspection with visible light, IR, and thermal inspection of power lines, cell towers, and wind generators. Ollwerther points to two things, the obvious one being the danger to human life and liability that is eliminated by using an unmanned aerial vehicle – New York City had 12 construction worker fatalities and 472 injuries last year.
Albeit, the use of drones presents a different liability concern for construction companies. The nuance is the amount of money and resources that is saved for companies.
Between the money saved from not having to staff, not having to invest in both the equipment to maneuver and the safety equipment, as well as helicopters and the cameras, savings can be anywhere upwards of $200,000.
Also, an immense amount of time is saved by the drone’s ability to provide real-time job site updates. Typically, mapping requires 1-2 months and can often be inaccurate. For a drone, this job can be done within 30 minutes with accuracy within a centimeter.
The use of drones in New York, however, especially in construction, is not only be limited by the FAA, but also by union regulations and from city officials, like City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who wants to ban drone use in all five boroughs. While many are lobbying the FAA for more loose restrictions, drones suffer from an image problem from the general public.
In a New York Times article, Jesse Kallman, the head of business development and regulatory affairs at Airware, a start-up that offers drone solutions in the form of hardware and software that focuses on collecting aerial data and becoming a part of a data management systems for businesses, gave an insight into the image of drones,
“Right now when you see a news story about an unmanned vehicle, it’s either a story about a hobbyist who did something crazy with his small toy, or you hear about a military strike in the Middle East.”
The article points to the news story of the drone that landed on the lawn of the White House, flying completely undetected. This presented a security concern of drones and their line-of-sight flying.
Drone use for NYC construction is completely feasible and there are companies already pursuing the application with both software and hardware. The limitation of drones comes from current government restrictions and regulations on UAV use. Considering that drones cannot go above 500 feet – 46 stories – it becomes difficult for drones to survey many buildings in the city that sit well above that height. As drone technology improves, it becomes more important for both the attitude and the constraints surrounding drones change in order to truly take advantage of everything UAVs can offer.