From the Chronicles of a Construction Technology Addict
UAV’s are the next technology to be fully democratized and utilized throughout vertical and horizontal construction. Being a part of the UAV revolution gives me such great hope for the construction industry and what is possible for adoption. It shows that there are innovators and technology leaders within the construction realm that are okay with trying something different, leveraging new workflows and being early adopters. These people are the technology pioneers for the construction industry!
I can easily recall the day when the light bulb turned on in my head after learning about the potential of photogrammetry. I was geeking out at Autodesk University 2012 and listening to the big announcement about Recap (Recap was a newly rebranded software that was previously called 123D). Recap offered some amazing possibilities with utilizing the cloud for data processing and improved how the algorithms would process and register the images. I didn’t know this at the time, but these algorithms and concepts were nothing new. The ideas have been around since the early days of photography and were fully adopted in an analog format during the first world war. Recap and Pix4D were the first commercial applications to take full advantage of the digital technology, computing power, and built a platform that utilized the data from the 2D images. I was completely consumed with the potential uses of this after seeing Dominque Pouliquen present a 3D point cloud of the old gun battery in San Francisco that was created by capturing images from a DJI Phantom and then processing them using Recap. It still to this day blows me away the amount of computer processing power that it takes to complete this process.
I hadn’t even left the conference yet and I had already ordered a DJI Phantom! I had to try this. I had to see it for myself. Coming from the heavy civil construction side, I wanted to implement this technology. Anyone that knows me would agree that I definitely fall under the category of an early adopter. Additionally, I am always a realist when it comes to the difficulties of duplicating what was shown in a demo. I know it never goes as smooth, works as efficient or as simple as the demo makes it out to be. This journey would not be any different!
Before the DJI Phantom was delivered I decided that I could practice using the Recap software and imagery captured with a SLR or point and shoot camera. After a week of trying Recap and various ways to take the photos on various subjects with various cameras, I was not impressed. I began to call Autodesk and started asking questions and they did not have all the answers. Sam Kloes and I were fully immersed into figuring this out. We would spend all hours of the day trying to get this to work. It was very frustrating because sometimes Recap would just simply not process the images and all the registration in the world didn’t make a difference. We had to come up with another solution. The DJI Phantom was delivered and we still did not have a workflow that could process the data with any type of real results (I wish I had a few images from what the data looked like, it was crazy what the algorithms made). That was until Sam stumbled across a very small software company in Switzerland called Pix4D. This would end up being our software of choice and still is for data processing! After realizing that the Phantom with vision camera setup would not work with Pix4D, we bought our second DJI Phantom. This time we were more educated and ordered it with a gimbal for the GoPro and a FPV (First Person View) screen for the pilot. We had the right software, the right hardware, but sometimes we were getting good data and other times it would be garbage.
That is the point we realized that having GCP’s (Ground Control Points) was critical to the processing of the images and essential for the processed data to be highly accurate. Luckily for us, at that same time we were also beginning to explore the use of another new technology that has similar workflows, laser scanning. We were already using targets for laser scanning so we could also use this same workflow for the UAV’s. Of course there was a learning curve with the size, shape and color of the targets. We again pulled from our past experiences, this time using and setting up Airborne Lidar panels. After we were able to dial in the hardware, software, targets and workflow, it was go time! It had probably taken us about eight to ten months of trial and error and many bar napkin brainstorming sessions to get to this point. We were finally having great success and consistency with the missions.
"Tower, this is Ghost rider requesting a flyby."
"That's a negative Ghost rider, the pattern is full."
"No, no Mav this is not a good idea." "Sorry Goose but it is time to buzz the tower."
A lesson learned from another one of my favorite movies, TopGun. Don’t let your young PE’s take the UAV to a job site unsupervised! I got a phone call on a Friday night from the PE saying something like, “I crashed the UAV”. I was thinking that it was not a big deal. In all honesty, I have crashed the UAV’s more times than I can remember, but without any major damage. He said “No, it is in a few pieces!” How the hell did he do that, I asked? He told me that he was flying at top speed about 3’ off the ground and hit a pedestrian hand rail. The Phantom must have exploded on impact. The worst part about the entire accident is that we lost all the data on the SD card because it was ejected somewhere along the debris trail. If anyone has crashed a UAV while recording video or 2 second stills, it is very entertaining to turn up the volume and get the first person perspective all the way to the ground.
It is all fun and games until the FAA gets involved. No, we have never had any issues with the FAA. But around December of 2015, the FAA started changing the commercial rules, which were created in the 60’s for hobbyist. I never was in a position to question the laws and regulations, I always looked at it as a necessary evil. So, we lawyered up. Hiring an FAA lawyer, Johnathon Rupert, I decided we had to get our Section 333 and be 100% compliant with the law. After seven months of review at the FAA, the Section 333 waiver was finally approved in September of 2015. This was not an easy task and included a lot more than simply applying for the exemption. We had to create all kinds of manuals and register the UAV’s with the FAA. However, I would like to say that none of this was very expensive or cost prohibitive. There is no excuse for not following the law.
The UAV program as a whole was a great success and well worth the time and effort. I hope this encourages other contractors to pick up a UAV and play with it. If you're unsure of the legality or workflows there are companies to help with this implementation. Just keep in mind that in four years this technology has gone from an idea to real world practical use in every aspect of construction! GREAT BALLS OF FIRE!