section background

Need a Quick Inspection of a 58 Story Tower? Send a Drone

Date: 08.14.2018

Published On: The New York Times

As the head of a 700-year-old winemaking dynasty, Lamberto Frescobaldi is overseeing a construction project in one of his Tuscany vineyards using technology that would have seemed otherworldly to his ancestors: high-flying drones.

Ubiquitous as toys for the gadget-minded — and sometimes for purposes like spying and dropping explosives — drones have become indispensable tools in construction and real estate. Their relatively low cost and ease of handling have made work more efficient for architects, landscape designers, surveyors, builders, structural engineers and brokers.

By launching a drone over the Perano vineyard in the Chianti region south of Florence, Mr. Frescobaldi can examine the progress of a 25,000-square-foot garden being built atop one of his wine cellars. The rooftop garden is intended for wine tastings, a crucial marketing strategy for the vintner’s business, Marchesi Frescobaldi. The company, which has a half-dozen vineyards that produce 11 million bottles of wine each year, reported revenue of $120 million in 2017.

Richard Shelbourne, a British landscape architect who designed the garden, said the drone images helped refine the project. “The garden design, which started in my head and was then calculated and set out on paper, could now be seen in full scale from the air, and all the lines and curves were in the right place,” he said.

The drone allowed the men to observe the work of excavators and motorized barrows, and the construction of pergolas, fountains and terra-cotta walkways. After looking at the drone footage during construction, they decided to modify an entrance to the garden.

“I asked my son to fly over a number of times, so I could imagine how it would be planted, to give it attention from a perspective that you usually do not have,” Mr. Frescobaldi said. “These modern devices, these videos — it’s progress.”

Small, swift and agile, drones have all but replaced the more costly and less nimble helicopter for tasks that involve inspections, measurements and marketing images.

Interest in drones is rising for both consumer and commercial use. Sales of drones increased 33 percent in 2017 over the prior year, according to the market research firm NPD Group.

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed commercial drone use for a broad range of businesses, but with restrictions: Pilots must be at least 16 years old and pass a written test.

On building sites, drones are saving money and time by providing digital images, maps and other files that can be shared in a matter of minutes, said Mike Winn, the chief executive of DroneDeploy, a company founded five years ago in San Francisco that creates software for, among other uses, operating drones with mobile apps.

Drones are reducing the travel time for busy executives, Mr. Winn said. “The head office can see what’s going on, and the safety team, the costing team, the designers — all of them can contribute to the project, share data and comment on it, without actually going to the job.”

They could also improve safety. In the days before drones, Mr. Winn said, measuring the roof of a house for solar panels would require “a guy with a tape measure to climb up there,” which often produced inaccurate results and, like anything involving heights, was dangerous.

Such peril is magnified in the construction of skyscrapers, said John Murphy Jr., a contractor on the Paramount Miami Worldcenter, a 58-story condominium tower being built in downtown Miami. Before drones, Mr. Murphy said, workers seeking access to the exterior of a high-rise were “dropped over the side” in so-called swing stages, small platforms that hang from cables. Often used by window cleaners, swing stages are precarious in high winds.

“No one wants to go out there,” he said. “It’s scary.”

Falls accounted for 384 of the 991 deaths in the construction industry in 2016, according to the latest figures from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. That number could be reduced over time by increasing the use of drones for quality-control inspections and similar missions.

“We’re definitely limiting the exposure to workers,” said Mr. Murphy, who on a recent afternoon was at the Paramount site to supervise a drone inspection of window glazing on the tower. The drone’s camera was looking for possible leaks, water intrusion and “other things that you can’t see from the interior of the building.”

Earlier, the drone was used to check the quality of steel connections in a bridge, 72 feet above the ground, that links the main tower to a parking structure.

The utility of drones often begins long before the foundation is poured. They help planners decide where to place new buildings. And at the 87-room Foundry Hotel in downtown Asheville, N.C., the developer sent a drone to the precise height and location of a proposed fourth-floor balcony to help him decide how best to take advantage of the view.

“A drone really helps us to conceptualize what a development is going to be, because sometimes it’s hard to do that just from a set of plans,” said Alexandros D. Papapieris, the development manager at McCall Capital, which is converting a 1925 office building in Bristol, Va., into the 65-room Bristol Hotel, set to open this fall. “Everyone loves a good aerial. Drones allowed us to paint a picture for the investors about why this was a good idea.”

Careers are being transformed with the new technology. Pedro Domecq, a videographer in San Sebastián, Spain, bought his first drone in 2011. “It cost $6,000,” he said. “Now, they cost $1,000 and they’re much better.”

Initially, Mr. Domecq used the drone to capture aerial videos of his picturesque Basque Country surroundings and share them on social media. Now, under the banner of his company, Heliworx, Mr. Domecq spends much of his time fulfilling contracts with builders.

“It’s all much easier with a drone,” said Mr. Domecq, who has lately been producing high-definition aerial surveys for the construction conglomerate Acciona, which is building a high-speed railroad that will connect the Basque Country with Madrid.

Mr. Domecq’s drone flights are aided by photogrammetry, in which three-dimensional digital models are created from overlapping photographs of a structure, landscape or object. Some of the flights involve mapping the paths to be taken underground by the many tunnels required for the railroad in the region’s mountainous terrain.

Younger business owners see drones as a moneymaking tool. After graduating from college four years ago and starting a small video marketing company in Charleston, S.C., Matt Coda found himself being asked to produce industrial videos with a drone. His biggest coup was a contract for his company, Vive Media, to document the first phase of construction of a 280-acre container terminal for the South Carolina Ports Authority.

For more than a year, said Mr. Coda, 26, he provided monthly progress reports to his client, the S.J. Hamill Construction Company, in the form of video updates. He flew the drone along the same two routes on the development site to show Hamill Construction the entire property as the project progressed.

In May, Mr. Coda began working on the building site of the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center, an $80-million, 224,000-square-foot structure at Trident Technical College in North Charleston.

“It’s fascinating to see a project evolve,” said Mr. Coda, a certified drone operator. “But I’m grateful to be the one flying the drone and not doing the actual construction.”