Viewpoint: Drone technology. Is it just a game, or a game changer?
Powell Williams' Natasha Tyler attends a RICS Matrics
presentation from Oxfordshire-based Overdrones on the use of drone
technology in building surveying.
It's been hovering on the
horizon for some years now, but drone technology is now finding its
way into the day-to-day operations of many modern
There's been talk of drone deliveries by Amazon, indeed DHL
already claims to be using it for remote areas, and some wedding
photographers are taking to the skies for that all important group
shot. Aircraft, oil rig and rail network inspections are all
benefitting from using drone-mounted cameras to see the parts other
cameras cannot reach, and surveyors are starting to see the
potential such technology offers our industry.
What are the opportunities for building
The obvious opportunity is in the preparation of a condition
survey of a particularly tall, large or intricate building. Tall
structures with no rooftop access are an obvious example, where
scaling a great height is not possible. Historic sites can have
carved stonework, which is important to view but difficult to reach
due to height, age or delicacy of the surrounding structures. Vast
towers and supersheds also prove a challenge; the distribution
centre I looked at last week was 130,000 sq.ft and with a site area
of 7.9 acres, and there was no way of reaching the centre.
Properties with limited access due to proximity to neighbours or
bodies of water, or which would require access via unstable ground,
can also defy even the most intrepid surveyor.
Traditionally, surveyors will hire a lorry mounted cherry
picker, to range over a roof edge or gain access to raised
structures. An in-depth analysis of the accessible area will be
used to surmise the condition of the remaining area, backed up with
photographs and visual evidence gained by the surveyor with a pair
of binoculars. To be fair, this is a pretty effective industry
standard, and gives an accurate picture of the condition in 99% of
cases. However, the potential offered by close up video footage of
these hard-to-reach sections would ensure 100% coverage, and we do
like to be thorough.
How many people does it take to
Although the use of a drone does
require at least three people (the pilot, camera operator and the
actual surveyor), the "by-the-hour" rate is only slightly more than
the hire of a cherry-picker. However, it's likely to be faster to
conduct the survey by air as the drone takes just minutes to set up
and there's no climbing required. The live feed can allow the
surveyor to direct the camera to specific sections of wall or roof
for a closer look, while a simultaneous recording provides 'high
definition' evidence for the report. It could even be used inside,
and the resulting images can be better quality. Reassuringly, use
of a drone reduces the risk from the surveyor's perspective of
working at height, and has untold benefits for the acrophobic
Is there a DIY option?
The question then arises, could we do this for ourselves with a
piece of kit ordered online? Well it's not something I would
advise, having heard about the reams of regulatory information
which has to be provided to the Civil Aviation Authority, rules
over altitude restrictions, privacy concerns and the hours of pilot
training needed to ensure safe travel. Professional surveying is
very different from people operating hobby drones on a weekend, and
is subject to strict regulation. Also, the chances are that "flying
for fun" is set to come under greater scrutiny following soaring
figures from police forces around the country on illegal or
nuisance drone flights. And, at £20k each, it is a considerable
So will the use of drone technology catch on
in building surveying?
Does it offer enough of a benefit to make the additional spend
worthwhile? Yes, I think it will one day be a regular part of our
surveyor's tool box, and I see more applications coming online as
time goes on. Sustainability surveys could be conducted using
thermal imaging cameras, and it won't be long before captured data
can be input directly into augmented reality programmes allowing us
to dissect the virtual building with clients using a tablet in a
meeting room. It doesn't allow for a hands-on survey (the old
knuckle knock test), and perhaps might not be viable for smaller
buildings at this stage.
This industry is notoriously conservative but the benefits this
offers should make it an easy sell. A slightly higher initial
outlay would not only provide better quality images and HD video
footage of previously inaccessible locations, it is also a faster
and safer way of collecting the information needed for surveyors to
provide their clients with a full and robust report. It could be a
genuine game changer in the way we survey buildings in the
For further information on this article, please contact Natasha.