Construction Drones and More
We reached out to Bechtel after they received their FAA Section 333 Exemption to learn more about construction drones, the section 333 process, and more. While many at Bechtel assisted in this interview we wanted to thank Mike Lewis, Bechtel’s Global Manager of Construction, for his insights as he provided the responses.
Q. You filed your Section 333 exemption on October 8th of 2014, did the approval process go forward as you expected?
We followed a clear process and are excited about the opportunities to improve our project delivery as a result of the approval to use drones commercially.
Q. Would you have any recommendations to others who are just beginning the exemption process?
The process is quite clear and easy to follow. In a way, compliance processes are typically the easy part of implementing new technologies. The more important step is to develop a strong business case. You need to decide what serves your goals best in today’s world of constant change and rapid technology development.
Q. Do you have any advice for the FAA around the process?
We commend FAA’s efforts to develop a safe system for companies to use drones as they increase competitiveness through innovation.
Q. Your exemption paperwork notes that: “The exemption would allow the petitioner to operate an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to conduct aerial imaging in construction operations.” Will this result in a cost savings to your business? Other benefits?
We see multiple benefits of applying new technologies in construction:
- Better integration of our processes across different functions like engineering, procurement, construction;
- Improved quality as a result of using real-time data to make timely decisions on site;
- Improved safety of our people and long-term operation of the facilities we build, and
- Enabling paperless operation of our sites.
So when we teamed with Skycatch in 2013, we looked not only at the drone’s ability to collect data but also the opportunities to integrate the data into our processes in real time.
We are a global company and engineering drawings are often produced in a 24-hour cycle across the globe. Giving our engineering offices access to real-time accurate situation on site makes our process more effective and reduces the risk of rework. In parallel, the construction team on site can access the same real-time data and use it to effectively sequence construction and evaluate progress. And this is just the tip of the iceberg that we started exploring.
Q. How did Bechtel determine that the use of construction drones would make sense for their business?
Being a leading engineering, procurement, construction and project management company in the world carries a lot of responsibility towards our people, our customers and our communities especially as it relates to our commitment to deliver quality projects safely. Innovation is part of that commitment. And just as the early Bechtel builders innovated the industry by introducing new equipment and developing hard hats to improve the safety and quality of project delivery, we are exploring ways to continue to be the best.
When we talk about drones, we don’t only mean the actual physical unmanned aircraft system. For us it includes the sensors the drone can have installed, and the cloud computational capacity it is connected to.
Drones are interesting to us in two aspects: safety and process. Construction is a high-risk industry and we put a lot of knowledge and effort in ensuring that every one of our people goes home safely every day. The ability to explore high-risk areas (e.g. extreme heights, confined spaces, areas with dangerous materials, etc) without direct human involvement fundamentally changes the extent to which we can keep our people safe. The world where we can prevent ever putting people in a potentially risky situation is now within our reach.
In terms of process, the data collected by the drone can now be stored in a cloud, instantly analyzed within Bechtel’s design and construction software requirements, and viewed on multiple devices by project teams across functions and time-zones. Potentially, you can scan an area, get exact measurements of project progress, use the data real time to update schedule and as built engineering drawings, and explore opportunities for improving productivity by modelling different construction sequencing going forward.
In the first phase, we will further study the application of drone technology to collect real-time environmental data (e.g. air quality, temperature, etc.) to ensure safe operation of projects; to survey difficult and inaccessible terrain to provide accurate information needed for our engineering teams to design facilities efficiently and with improved environmental footprint; and to track real-time construction progress enabling our site teams to work safely and plan construction more efficiently.
Q. We noted in the exemption that you are going to use the Skycatch, why is this the right one for you to use?
We teamed with Skycatch in late 2013 to explore ways to integrate their cutting-edge drone technology into our systems. Their unique platform is connected to a cloud for real-time analytics, and has preprogramed geographic controls for safe operation and compliance with flight announcements. We are looking forward to working with them to further explore their technology’s vast potential in improving construction on large and complex projects we build across the globe.
Q. How many drone pilots do you envision hiring in 2015?
Now that we have the approval in place, we can do detailed studies on existing projects so we can integrate drones into our standard processes and procedures. We still have some work to do before a drone pilot becomes a standard job description across Bechtel projects.
Q. Were there any questions we should have asked you?
As a closing comment, I would like to share my excitement at the new construction site we are building here – safer, more efficient, and built on Bechtel’s 100+ years of innovation history. It is a special honor to be part of that history.
Skycatch has this video on their site about using construction drones
Interested in reading more about construction drones?