Using drones for business purposes may not be a new trend, but what is trending is that more engineering and construction companies are licensing their own pilots.

Apex Engineering Group, for example, started using drones about three years ago. Drones there were first used mostly to record pictures and video for marketing purposes, providing images for press releases and other promotional material. But the company’s focus on using drones has changed over time, according to civil engineer Brent Muscha, just as it has for many engineering and construction companies.

Apex, which has offices in three locations in North Dakota and one in Minnesota, has found drone use an applicable and efficient tool to survey projects and track progress. What’s more, the drones it flies are piloted by its own in-house staff.

“It’s developed in the last few years as we’ve gotten a little more savvy with what we’re doing,” said Muscha, who is based in Fargo, N.D. He said Apex does not hire specifically for pilot positions but instead surveyors and engineers who, on top of their primary duties, would like to take on the additional responsibility of piloting drones when the need arises.

That need arises more frequently these days.

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Apex started with two pilots – Muscha and a colleague – but it now has five licensed pilots. And while the company still uses drones to capture images for marketing purposes, there’s great client appeal using them to track project successes.

“We've gotten into the habit of using drones more in construction projects. It actually has become somewhat of a routine,” he said.

Capturing images from a drone’s-eye view of the different phases of a project, which the company sends to clients, is something clients seem to like. That’s especially so during the coronavirus pandemic, when it may be difficult for people to go onsite to see a project or if they’re uncomfortable doing so.

It helps “give them an overview of how things are progressing without actually having to be on site,” he said. “I think it gives them a little better feeling about what actually is being done. It's kind of hard, when you're on the ground, to see some of the things that are happening (with a project). You don't get quite the same feeling of scale as you do when you see it from a drone photo from a couple hundred feet high.

“When you’ve got a street project or something like that and all of a sudden, over a period of a month or so, you've got four blocks in the street completely reconstructed, you just get a better idea of the scale of the work that's been done. I think that's what they appreciate.”

The Many Uses of Drones

Construction planning, management and inspection are among the leading uses of drones commercially, according to Dan Edmonson, founder of Drone Genuity, based in Hopkinton, Mass.. He works with companies throughout the United States, including contract work in South Dakota. He said that year-over-year adoption of aerial data and analysis suggests that construction leads all other industries at 238% growth.

In this sector, drones are used for surveying, digital mapping and topography, soil analysis, inspections and the monitoring of projects. And just as relevant, drones are good for security monitoring, documenting and sharing progress with stakeholders, and providing unique experiences when social distancing won’t allow in person visits – just as Apex does.

The progress of a project along Main Avenue and 2nd Street in Fargo, N.D., is seen in these images captured by a drone by Apex Engineering Group.
The progress of a project along Main Avenue and 2nd Street in Fargo, N.D., is seen in these images captured by a drone by Apex Engineering Group.Images: Courtesy of Apex Engineering Group

“Our pilots can and do perform all of these functions on a weekly basis,” Edmonson said. “One of our most popular requests is for construction progress photos. We are seeing more and more requests for thermal imaging for energy conservation, 3D renderings and finished project marketing videos. As more companies use drones to reduce on-site staff and become more comfortable with the technology, we continue to see more interest and more unique projects.”

Dave Bowen, technology innovation manager with Ulteig, said the company over the years increased its drone use with projects. For example, drones are helpful in surveying the right-of-way for transmission lines before a structure can be built.

“In this case, that actually requires the use of LiDAR (light detection and ranging) on a drone because of the need to punch through vegetation, which may lie within that right-of-way, to get a precise topographical model that we can pass to the engineers who do the actual designing of the transmission line,” he said. “So that's one example. Another example is using the same type of approach for surveying but instead of using LiDAR we’d use photogrammetry. This could be done, let's say, for one of our transportation clients. … There's a ton of applications on the surveying and mapping side.”

Bowen said he believes drones are being better utilized by firms and that “there's a ton of interesting applications, whether that’s a visual and thermographic survey substation or you're doing a thermographic analysis of a solar farm to check for instances of potential damage to PV panels or what have you; or if you're doing wind turbine inspections.”

Bowen is based in Colorado but said Ulteig, an engineering consulting company, has several offices in the region. Drones mostly are used with its surveying team, he said, noting the unmanned craft will continue to play a role in Ulteig’s future.

As more companies become better at drone usage and develop their own pilots, the more they help shape the growing trend: forget contract work and fly yourself.

Frank Regas, owner of Ascending Innovations in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he has an engineering background and contracts out to construction and engineering firms all of the time. But he does notice how more companies are getting their own pilots. That’s good for them, he said, but maybe not as good for him.

“They can get it done pretty efficiently, especially engineering firms and construction companies.” he said. “That seems to be the trend. On the flip side, it means less work for guys like me.”

In-house Pilots and the Future of Drones

Construction and engineering companies, which typically use drones for photogrammetry and video, are the main players that use drones for business, according to Edmonson. Besides companies developing their own pilots, they should also invest in equipment that can grow with drone technology. And if they haven’t yet invested, he said, they should consider doing so in the foreseeable future.

A likely scenario is that construction leaders will likely “fly systems that can carry multiple sensors, whether it’s LiDAR to cut through vegetation or thermal to complete building inspections,” reads an article on Inside Unmanned Systems. “Sensors will become more accurate, and drones will become even more common.”

Drone usage among construction and engineering firms will only trend upward. As it does, and as companies invest in their own pilots instead of contracting them, Edmonson said it opens another door for UAS businesses, such as Drone Genuity and its training programs.

“Flying a drone isn’t an easy task in and of itself and combining that with capturing images makes the task trickier,” he said, noting Drone Genuity is beginning to consult with companies who have their own fleets and pilots. “In the future it will be interesting to see if companies continue to contract this type of work, take it in-house, do both, or even grow and try to provide services to other companies.”

Edmonson said over the next five years or so more food and beverage and hospitality and tourism industries will likely integrate drones in a variety of ways.

“Health care, emergency and disaster response have also seen drone integration,” he said. “We are seeing increases in agriculture and insurance with the return of warm weather and expect those trends to continue.”

Regas said drones’ potential hasn’t yet been fully realized. He expects that as technology becomes smarter and more efficient, there will be more autonomous drones. Despite companies developing their own pilots, something that may hinder the number of contracts he and other UAS businesses may receive, Regas is excited to be part of a forward-thinking industry. He looks forward to its future.

“I think (things will happen) that a lot of us can’t really think of right now,” he said.

Prairie Business Editor Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276.