The second coming of the drone

New technology
The visions of airborne couriers delivering hot pizza or bags of groceries straight to our doorstep that were being mooted a few years ago might have faded, but drones are increasingly taking on different roles – such as inspecting construction sites and creating three-dimensional models of buildings

In December 2016, Amazon Prime Air fired up our imaginations and hopes by delivering the first parcel to a customer using a drone: Richard B of Cambridgeshire had ordered an Amazon Fire TV stick and a bag of popcorn. The parcel landed in the garden behind Richard’s house 13 minutes after the order had been placed. “Our customers can order goods seven days a week,” declared Av Raichura, the community affairs manager of the British division of Amazon Prime Air in an interview with ‘Eurobuild CEE’. “We do not have a permit for flights after dusk, when the wind is strong or when visibility is poor or during rain or snowfall. However, when we have more data on the system’s security, we will be able to streamline it and expand the scope of the deliveries,” he stated.

A hard landing

Today, when asked about the development of the service, Av Raichura is rather more taciturn, informing us that there is nothing more to say about it and referring us instead to the Amazon Prime Air site, where you can still only find the announcement of a bright future for drone deliveries. Our skies have yet to fill up with unmanned flying devices, as forwarding companies and retailers have so far declined to embrace the idea of mass deliveries via drones. While huge progress has been made on the technical side in this sector, the drone still cannot spread its wings (or propellers) into the commercial arena. According to Polish regulations, unmanned aerial vehicles have to operate in VLOS (Visual Line of Sight) conditions, i.e. in the operator’s eye range, in open space, away from airports (no closer than 6 km from the perimeter fence) as well as far from population centres and roads. Polish law still does not sanction the existence of fully autonomous drones – according to the Ministry of Transport, Construction and Maritime Economy’s regulations, as laid down in 2013, the operator must maintain “continuous and complete flight control, via remote control using radio waves”. The president of the Civil Aviation Authority can only release you from this obligation in the case of “a demonstration, an attempt at breaking a record, an experiment or a test flight".

“The Civil Aviation Authority has yet to be asked by any parties for an exemption from the ‘continuous and complete flight control obligation. However, in 2017 one company did ask the CAA to be exempt from maintaining a safe distance from buildings, because it wanted to examine the composition of smoke from chimneys,” revealed Marta Chylińska of the press office of the Civil Aviation Authority at the end of August this year.

But things are gradually changing . There has been much talk in Poland about the EU’s U-Space concept, which is to allocate airspace of up to 150m above the ground in cities for automatic and autonomous out-of-sight flights. However, it was not until June this year that the European Parliament adopted the first rules aimed at organising and unifying the diverse legal systems of member countries in this respect. Furthermore, as newly elected Polish local authorities begin their terms in office in 2019, airspace management up to a height of 150m will become their responsibility, which may provide more impetus to the development of the market for these devices.

A drone can perform a safe inspection at each stage of a project

Strict inspector

So far, drones may have been ‘kept on a leash’, but they have also been entering other spheres of life where they can be operated free from any major constraints, in the run-up to the U-Space regulations coming into force. The property investment market is one example of the areas that they now move in. One innovative project is being developed by Budimex Innowacje in partnership with Sky Tronic. The idea is to use drones to generate 3D maps of building sites. “Drones are now a familiar tool that can be employed in many segments of the market. What we want to do is to extend the use of autonomous aerial devices into the precise surveying and monitoring of large structures and expanses – in particular for the inspection of the technical state of construction works in real time,” explains Przemysław Kuśmierczyk, the manager of Budimex’s innovation team. “This will be mainly about detecting, recognising and verifying the quality of a project – examining changes in material structures, detecting damage to the buildings and carrying out heating and cooling analyses,” he adds.

The result of this partnership is an autonomous device called the 3D Flight Explorer FLC, which has a SkyNav system installed and can generate accurate 3D images of physical structures. The measurements are made in real time with hardly any participation from the operator. “The drone will be equipped with a stabilisation and flight control system with a ‘fuzzy logic controller’ that ensures safe and stable flight in difficult weather and terrain – such as strong gusts of wind, turbulence and where accessing the buildings is tricky,” says Tadeusz Gudaszewski, the CEO of Sky Tronic. “With this system, the drone will also be able to map roads and avoid obstacles. The device is to be autonomous but it will be supervised by an operator who – having the drone in sight – can activate manual steering if the situation requires,” he adds.

The team has been working on an electronic measuring device – or visual space identification system. This will use decision-making algorithms for automatically identifying the best route. The 3D image it will generate will provide quick and precise measurements of solid structures, including both open and occupied spaces, including the earth present or the construction elements in place. The 3D map of the surroundings created in this way will also be used for navigational purposes. It will be possible to create digital images of a project’s area and create models for surveying purposes. “By automating the flight of the carrier and the photogrammetric measurements, the surveying work can be significantly improved and the time needed can be shortened for creating 3D models of sites for planned projects,” says Przemysław Kuśmierczyk of Budimex. The general contractor plans to use the system for drawing up inventories for its construction sites. The first tests under operational conditions are to be carried out at the beginning of next year.

Amazon Prime Air still only flies drones in tests

Versatile architect

In the construction sector drones are proving useful even at the initial stages of a project – they can help in preparing the site development documentation and for making accurate orthophotomaps. “The terrain is of key importance when choosing the right documenting device. When it comes to small individual features – such as slag heaps, storage sites or buildings – it’s best to use a multicopter, as it can fly much closer than a plane and collect more detailed data. Furthermore, if one or even two propellers or engines fail, the drone will still be able to land safely,” points out Justyna Siekierczak, the CEO of AeroMind. For architects and engineers it’s important for the drone to be compatible with advanced graphics software, such as AutoCAD or BIM, so that the aerial photos can be transferred directly to the design on the computer. Furthermore, the flight can take place on a planned grid, with automatic coverage of all the marked terrain, including cross trajectories with orthogonal photos for mapping, and photos taken at a 45° angle for scanning and further 3D modelling.

“When it comes to small individual features – such as slag heaps, storage sites or buildings– it’s best to use a multicopter, as it can fly much closer than a plane and collect more detailed data. Furthermore, if one or even two propellers or engines fail, the drone will still be able to land safely,” claims Justyna Siekierczak of AeroMind

Photos taken by the drone can thus be used for preparing the documentation for construction projects, such as roads or bridges, but they are increasingly also being used for structural analysis, as well as for determining subcontractors fees and providing an inventory of construction sites. “These unmanned aerial vehicles combine a thermal imaging camera and a daylight camera in one module. This system can also be employed for analysing a building’s energy usage, for example, when we want to identify where its thermal bridges are. The drone is able to inspect each side of the building at any distance from the walls, which means it can identify the smallest critical points,” adds Karol Nowak, the deputy CEO of AeroMind.

It is difficult to overstate the safety issues that could be avoided or resolved by the use of drones. The devices can help building inspectors to carry out surveys in dangerous places, such as buildings that are under construction or in danger of collapse as well as from great heights. ν