Few commercial industries have deployed drone technology as widely as construction, where the unmanned aerial vehicles have taken over a multitude of tasks like surveying, overhead 3D topography mapping, and inspecting bridges and other sites either too dangerous or impossible for humans to do unassisted.
In fact, Mike Danielak, director of client strategy and business development at Skyward, a drone software development company, says construction is one of the top 3 users of commercial-based drones. Over the last two years, Danielak writes in Construction Dive, a million new drone pilots have registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and by 2020, experts expect the number of drones in use to crest 7 million.
The University of Michigan College of Engineering recently announced the opening of a 9,600 square-foot indoor fly lab for testing autonomous aerial vehicles, called M-Air. The lab is putting drones to the test in real-world conditions to try out new potential uses for the technology, including applications for the construction industry, such as roofing tasks like inspecting for damage, transporting and even installing shingles using a pneumatic nail gun.
“I want unmanned aerial vehicles to clean my gutters, inspect my roof for damage and clean my windows each spring. They could also tape off my windows and paint my house someday."
The technology isn’t quite ready to tackle a roofing project without human intervention just yet, but Ella Atkins, U-M professor of aerospace engineering, says she sees possible future applications for drones even beyond basic inspection and repair work.
“I want unmanned aerial vehicles to clean my gutters, inspect my roof for damage and clean my windows each spring. They could also tape off my windows and paint my house someday…,” she said.
The FAA opened the door to more commercial drone use in 2016 when it relaxed its regulations governing non-recreational drones. This made it possible for roofing contractors to legally put drone technology to use.
GAF, North America’s top roofing manufacturer, sees great promise in the technology at every phase of the job. Drones can be used to measure and survey sites before work starts, identifying the best spots to put materials and vehicles. Camera-equipped drones can quickly take detailed images of the entire roof, particularly useful on very steep roofs, for reviewing with the home or building owner. On the marketing side, these photo-taking drones can also be used to create illustrative before-and-after videos to show off completed work.
Dimitrios Zekkos, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M, is part of a team using specially designed drones to survey and map disaster sites. He said in a news release that the technology being tested and developed at M-Air could one day be used to more safely inspect everything from landslide damage to collapsed structures, even below the soil.
“Much of what we see at the surface—whether it is a failure of a bridge, a landslide, or a structural collapse—may be caused by failure at depth. The problem is that some of these areas, immediately after the event, are unsafe and sometimes impossible to reach. This work can inform risk assessment studies, urban planning and other critical decisions and processes. It could also lead to better design procedures and, eventually, safer structures.”
Drones represent a rare area of technology adoption where the construction industry is among the pack leaders
While it remains to be seen whether unmanned aerial vehicles will become an indispensable part of a roofing contractor’s arsenal, the technology is certainly promising, and as M-Air continues its research, new uses for drones are likely to be discovered.
Drones represent a rare area of technology adoption where the construction industry is among the pack leaders, and it’s unquestionably an advance that can help keep workers safe and more efficiently perform certain tasks.
ReplacedByRobot is a website created based off of an academic paper written by the Oxford Martin School, which estimates approximately 50% of all U.S. jobs are “at risk of being automated and replaced by robots.” According to the site, roofing has a 90% chance of one day being fully automated. As with all automated technology, the debate rages on whether human beings will be replaced or simply re-skilled to work in tandem with robots programmed to do certain repetitive or dangerous tasks.
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