How to Get Started with Drones in Construction

Keeping up with your competition means you’re going to have to get some drones in the air, and you’re going to need to do it soon. Getting off the ground with your first construction drone can feel like a daunting challenge. Between licensing requirements, UAV restrictions, airspace classes, and commercial drone regulations, there’s enough information to make you give up before you get started.

Fortunately, getting a drone to fly over you site doesn’t have to be confusing or difficult. The key is to NOT follow the typical advice: get one of your employees licensed, starting flying drones over your sites, then buy more drones. This is an easy way to spend too much money and get little-to-no return. We’ve got five simple steps to getting started with construction drones. You’ll scale drones to your needs, find where they offer the most value to your company, and avoid splurging on unnecessary costs.

The five steps to getting drones on your construction site

  1. Get Some Promo Shots (Semi-Annually)
    Find one of your projects that is almost complete, or was recently completed, and hire a drone pilot to film it. It’s an easy, low-pressure way to test out the process and get familiar with the product. You’ll also get some good marketing material out of it. You’ll likely see the immediate value, and wish you had some before images to cut in with the final build shots.

  2. Capture Major Milestones (Bi-Monthly)
    Once you see the results of your first drone experience, you might be tempted to go out, get licensed, and buy a drone all in one day. We’d recommend taking it a bit slower. Use one of the drone providers in our drone resources section to hire a freelance pilot, and have them fly your site to capture aerials at major intervals. This’ll give you a chance to get more familiar with the advantages of aerial photography, and see how you want to use it for your projects.

  3. Complete a Pay Application with Drone Footage (Monthly)
    With the aerial footage of your major milestones in hand, go back to some old pay apps and test out how you could use the images to improve your pay applications. With the proper tools, you’ll see how much simpler the billing process can be and likely find progress that you neglected to bill for. Then, go ahead and use aerial images to supplement your next pay app. This is where most firms find the largest immediate payoff from using drones, and where the transition from freelance pilot to in-house pilot usually begins.

  4. Fly on Fridays (Weekly)
    As you get more comfortable with invoicing off of aerial images, you will naturally start finding more opportunities to put them into your workflow. Try getting in the habit of flying weekly, ideally on Fridays, so you can capture the work for the week. It’s at this stage we recommend purchasing your own drone and getting a member of your staff licensed to fly. You should also choose software to manage the large amount of data you will be capturing.

  5. Get Ad-Hoc Updates and Real Change Progress (Daily)
    At this point, you can fully integrate drones into your daily workflow. You should absolutely have someone onsite doing your drone flights, as a freelancer will no longer be a cost-effective solution. You also will need software that can manage the large amount of data you’re collecting. However, at this stage, you will receive a detailed level of insights that simply has never been available to construction firms before.

1. Flying Drones for Construction Promo Shots

Aerial_Bridge

This is your opportunity to get a feel for the drone market, get some reasonably priced promotional footage, and figure out how you’re going to proceed. This first step should be casual and low-pressure, as well as a good opportunity to talk to your freelance pilot about their advice and experience. You should walk away with enough information to make a solid plan to move on to step two.

Freelance or In-house:

Freelance

Expected Cost

$100-200/hour depending on location

Software:

Your freelance pilot will provide you with footage in a file type of your choosing.

How to use your images:

Use the footage on your website and in your promotional materials.

Benefits:

You'll get a chance to test the waters of aerial imaging with a small upfront cost.

2. Flying Drones Bi-Monthly for Major Project Updates

Aerial_Excavation

Use this step as a chance to get your team amped up about the potential of drone imaging. Share the images you get with your entire team. Get feedback and opinions on how your employees would like to use them, what other aerial images would be useful, and ask for their ideas. At this stage you should be gathering as much feedback as possible, and letting everyone get their hands on the data.

Freelance or In-house:

Freelance (likely)

Expected Cost:

$100-200/hour depending on location

Software:

Your freelance pilot will provide you with images in a 2D or 3D file type of your choosing.

How to use your images:

Major milestone aerials are ideal for marketing, workflow experimentation, and stakeholder status updates.

Benefits:

You’ll become more familiar with aerial imaging and have an opportunity to test it out for a small upfront cost.

3. Flying Drones Monthly for Pay Apps

Excavator

This is going to be your first push at actually putting drones to work for you, and your first opportunity to see a direct return on the investment. To get it done properly, you’re going to need the right software. Unearth offers a full suite of collaboration tools just for this purpose, you can learn more on our product page. Additionally, refer to our drone buying guide for information on other options.

Freelance or In-house:

Freelance (likely)

Expected Cost:

$150-500/month per project

Software:

To use aerial images for billing purposes, you will need software that can take accurate measurements from drone-created maps. See our list of drone software platforms below.

How to use your images:

Complete your pay app as you normally would, but use your aerial imaging as a reference point. You will quickly see the advantages of having an interactive aerial view while billing.

Benefits:

It’s quicker, easier, and more accurate. Additionally, as you use the images in your monthly billing, you will come across ways to further integrate them into your workflow.

4. Flying Drones Weekly for Spot Surveys

DJI_Drone

Now is the time to invest in a drone and a pilot. See our guide to purchasing a construction drone for more information. You will also need a software solution to actually put all of this data to use. For maximum return on your investment, you will want to put the images in front of as many members of your team as possible, and give them the tools needed to interact with it. Unearth is the only platform that offers this full set of functionality. Click here to see how it can work for you.

Freelance or In-house:

In-house

Expected Cost:

It's tough to get a firm estimate of costs here. Expect to pay the following:

Software:

You will need a full software solution to make the most use of your drone data.

How to use your images:

Weekly images can be used for coordination and collaboration, as well as administrative purposes.

Benefits:

Integrating drones into your weekly workflow should produce noticeable productivity gains as your team develops a common frame of reference for communication. You’ll notice fewer delays, more accurate billing, and simpler project management.

5. Flying Drones Daily for As-Built Updates and Progress Monitoring

Urban_Construction

Once you have an onsite pilot and drone, there’s no reason to not fly daily. It’s quick, easy and provides incredible value, especially when getting images of work completed that will soon be buried. By this time the majority of your staff should be comfortable working with aerial imagery, and enjoy putting it to use. The natural evolution of this process is that you will find drones and the imagery they provide as indispensable assets on any project.

Freelance or In-house:

In-house

Expected Cost:

No additional costs from step 4

Software:

Once you begin to fly this frequently, your software will directly affect the value you get from your aerial data. You’ll need secure storage, the ability to overlay plans, highly accurate measurement tools, and a full suite of collaboration capabilities.

How to use your images:

For maximum effect, your aerial maps should be forming the basis of all your interactions on the construction site. All team members should have direct access to the images, and the capability to collaborate through photos, RFIs, and chat.

Benefits:

If utilized properly, your drone will be creating maps of your build site that give you a complete overview of your project and insight to all the activities occurring therein. You will also be storing a complete build history with the evidence needed to quickly provide project updates or mitigate disputes.

Summary

You can’t just purchase a drone and software, shove it into your employees hands, and expect results. That’s a sure-fire way for the drone and its data to go to waste. Start slow, introduce it to your workflow bit-by-bit, and you will find success.

If you start using drones, and you have the enthusiasm and the desire from your team, feel free to start ramping up with them as fast as you feel comfortable. Just be sure you have the right tools and you know how to use them, or else you risk getting in over your head.

Additional Drone Resources

This guide should have everything you need to snap your first aerials of your sites. If you’re ready to purchase a drone for yourself, check out our guide to the Top 5 Drones for Construction. Once you put our advice to work, be sure to come back for upcoming Advanced Guide to Using Drones for Construction; subscribe now to be alerted when we publish it. In the meantime, check out some of our favorite drone resources below.

UAV Licensing Resources

Drone Software Providers

  • Unearth
    We provide interactive aerial maps of your projects, secure storage for your build history, and simple collaboration for your entire team.

  • DroneDeploy
    Drone software for capturing imagery, processing maps and 3D models, and interpreting your data.

  • SkyCatch
    Software that quickly turns your drone photos into 3D models.

  • Pix4D
    Photogrammetry software that uses images to generate point clouds, digital surface and terrain models, orthomosaics, textured models, and more.

Drone Freelance Services

  • DRONERS.IO
    Read reviews, compare prices and hire the pilot that best fits your needs and budget.

  • DroneLancer
    Hire expert drone operators for your next project. It's free to sign up and get a quote.

  • SkyTango
    A trusted marketplace for aerial video, SkyTango is a simple way to get the right drone video for you story.

  • HIREUAVPRO
    A premier, trusted source of professional drone operators, businesses, and pilots globally.

  • DroneBase
    Dronebase offers complete areial project updates to manage projects more efficiently.