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Drones – going where others fear to tread

When it comes to drone adoption, Australia’s construction sector is lagging behind other countries.

And according to The Institute for Drone Technology’s Geoff Gourley, these companies are missing out on improved safety, increased efficiencies and improved environmental sustainability, among other benefits.

“Drones are great if used right,” he told The Fifth Estate.

He says drones can eliminate many jobs that are “dull, dirty or dangerous”.

In construction, drones can be used inspect sites from above, track development progress and keep an eye out for health and safety risks, among other applications.

Gourley says some large blue chip construction companies have been using drones for a while, but elsewhere in the industry drone usage is fairly incidental.

“It often starts with one person who’s passionate about drones who goes and buys one and starts flying it around.”

This is problematic because drones are often introduced without the right policies and procedures, and without the necessary training to prepare workers for the introduction of these machines on site.

“It’s like a flying robot – a flying piece of machinery. What if it hits someone or lands in a bad place? Or it impacts someone driving machinery? It could have serious consequences.

“People have underestimated the safety of introducing drones into operations.”

Although most incidents caused by drones have been relatively minor so far, if the proper precautions aren’t taken then there’s a good chance that they will cause something more serious.

“What we need to avoid are incidences and that give rise to a ‘it’s not safe and I don’t want them there and around my backyard’ mentality.”

The Australian-based startup that Gourley is working for is helping workplaces become drone ready. It runs education programs to upskill workers in the use of drone technology, among other services.

Industry is starting to embrace the benefits of drones

When it comes to the reputation of drones, he says there’s been a lot of acceptance in the consumer space because there’s been much more governance and rigour. But in the commercial space, that same acceptance is “now really starting to emerge”.

“They are starting to see the benefits that drones can bring – everyone’s excited by it.

“The perception is: drones are cool, they do cool stuff, used in the right way they can be beneficial.”

Counter drone technology, which keeps unwanted drones out of certain airspaces, is where some of the most interesting technology innovations are currently emerging, according to Gourley.

“You can quickly see the impact unwanted drones could have in an airport.”

Drones are now at an appealing price point

The technology is now at a price point most businesses can afford. Gourley says it’s possible to get a good commercial drone for as little as $2500 that can be retrofitted with a range of devices, such as thermal imagery tech.

The amount of money a business will need to spend on drone technology also depends on what they want them for, he says. Some drones cost as much as half a million dollars.

Gourley says the enterprise drones-as-a-service sector – a service for hiring drones and their operating crews – is on the decline and more businesses are bringing this function inhouse.

This is usually so that “they can control the data and the policies and rigours around workplace health and safety better”.

Where else are drones being used?

Drones have other useful built environment applications, such as in civil construction. They can be used in day-to-day work to check that measurements are correct for infrastructure like tunnels.

They can also be used to do volumetric surveys with the right equipment. For example, they can see how much soil is being removed from a site and at what rate.

In facilities management, they are useful for maintenance and asset management. They can be used to inspect building facades to check pieces aren’t about to fall off, for instance.

The other benefit of drones is the capture of data and using it to form insights on how that business will react. In the mining sector, they can be used to create a “digital twin” of mines to see how they are changing in real time. This can help business owners make informed decisions.

They can also be used to keep track of the environmental impact mines are having, leading to better management.

Many of these tasks formerly involved an employee putting their lives at risk, if it was possible to do at all.

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