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Undergraduate Student Life



Flying Drones in the Construction Industry

Written by:

Zachary Roberts ’21

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—also known as drones—are disrupting the construction industry. They provide a cheap alternative for aerial surveying and surveillance, which has attracted the interest of many contractors and sent them in a rush to get their employees FAA certified, with the Part 107 exam. This blog post intends to serve as a guide to getting your certification and to tell you about my experiences as a drone pilot.

I have been a commercial UAS pilot for two years, and I started my experience with D.L. Howell & Associates, Inc., out of West Chester, Pennsylvania. We used a software program there called DroneDeploy, which automates a drone flight, causing it to piece together a bunch of images to create one large picture, known as an orthomosaic image. The drone flies around in a zig-zag pattern and takes pictures every couple seconds.

Drones also came in handy for construction updates. I would go out to a construction site weekly or biweekly and take photos and video. The images and video captured presented well for clients and gave them a better perspective about job progress. I currently fly for Skanska USA as a summer intern in Virtual Design in Construction (VDC), where we use drones for communication between all stakeholders by analyzing up-to-date site progress and activity, safety, quality control and coordination to name a few. Newer-model DJI drones take 360-degree photos, which provide an interactive and complete view of a construction site.

Getting your drone license involves a lot of preparation, but as a member of the construction workforce, having it is valuable. I was given the opportunity to take a training course provided by DARTDrones. This company was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” and it gave me all the tools I needed to learn. You don’t need to spend money on a training course though. By visiting the FAA website or doing a Google search, you can find test material and study guides that should prepare you well for the licensing exam. I can personally endorse an app called Prepware Remote Pilot, which properly prepares you to take the exam. YouTube also provides a lot of free lessons that are really helpful for studying purposes.

There are plenty of uses for drones from a construction standpoint. The first is aerial surveying. Aerial surveys offer a new perspective on a construction site or property, give more accurate measurements than a Google Earth image would, and provide teams with accurate, up-to-date site conditions and layout. Drones also offer the possibility of doing an inspection that would certainly be dangerous for a person. For example, when there’s an overhanging beam off the edge of a building that needs inspection, you can use the drone to inspect the beam with no risk to a person’s safety. Another purpose for drones that I’ve seen personally is marketing. Drone imagery gives a company a great deliverable to send to a client or a showcase piece to help get that next job.

Taking the drone Part 107 licensing test requires you to go to an FAA-authorized location to take an online test, and you need a score of at least 70 percent to pass. Your FAA Part 107 license gives you permission to fly for commercial purposes. There are many types of photos that can be taken with drones that provide great service to the construction industry, including 360-degree, panorama and orthomosaic imagery, in addition to automated video functions.

The presence of drones are expanding in the construction industry. As one of two pilots at my first internship with DLHowell, I learned they expanded their number this summer to include two more engineers. I was part of a drone onboarding effort from Skanska USA’s Boston office this summer, where they introduced their first five pilots to fly in the area. As a national company, Skanska USA has a rapidly expanding program with over 20 FAA certified pilots.

Please feel free to reach out to me at zroberts@mit.eduif you have any questions! See below for some imagery from my personal flights this summer at Briggs Field – MIT and Kenmore Square – Boston: