Viewpoint: Drone technology. Is it just a game, or a game changer?

Tash and drone

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 businesses.

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 surveyors?

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 surveyor!

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 investment.

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 future.

For further information on this article, please contact Natasha.

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