Drone (UAV) technology has made major leaps forward in the past few years and presents significant opportunities for improving efficiency and reducing disputes in the construction sector.

Last year we wrote about opportunities for autonomous and unmanned vehicles in the construction industry, including for site surveys and monitoring during construction. These opportunities are only going to increase as the technology continues to progress and innovative uses of drones are developed. The site data that drones are able to collate could prove a valuable tool in reducing disputes on construction, reducing disruption and improving the efficiency of construction projects.

What impact will drones have in the construction sector?

A recent PwC report Skies without limits (PDF) predicts an £8.6 billion uplift in GDP in the construction and manufacturing sectors by 2030 due to the incorporation of drones in commercial activities. Key predicted themes for the sector include more efficient and accurate surveys on construction sites, improved data collection which can be integrated with the Building Information Modelling (BIM) system, and a potential reduction in disputes and disagreements relating to project status or progress. These efficiency and productivity gains are estimated to contribute to an overall £42 billion uplift to the UK economy by 2030 attributable to the impact of drones.

We explore some of these themes in further detail.

Dispute resolution

One of the possible benefits of drones identified by PwC is the use of the data and records gathered by drones in the event of disputes. Disputes relating to work progression, extensions of time and delay are common on construction projects. Sourcing an accurate record of activities carried out and progress of the works after the event is a common problem, but also often the key to unlocking such disputes. Where the necessary records are unavailable or incomplete, disputes can become more involved, expensive and time consuming to resolve, with each party employing their own experts to interpret the data available, which often leads to conflicting conclusions.

The use of periodic drone flights throughout a project to record work status and exact measurements could be invaluable in such a situation, particularly where both parties buy into, and agree on drone use at the outset of a project (including the frequency of the surveys, the data to be gathered etc.). Where such records are created, it will be harder for the parties to dispute these down the line – this could, in many cases, help avoid disputes in the first place.

Parties could proactively use those records as a common factual starting point from which, for example, assessments of extensions of time could be made. If a dispute cannot be avoided, the records from the drone may at least reduce the scope for conflicting accounts of progress or status, and would provide key evidence for tribunals when deciding such disputes.

Site monitoring

The use of drones in site and asset monitoring is becoming more established in the construction and wider infrastructure sectors and presents another opportunity for significant productivity increases. Drones are capable of undertaking site surveys significantly faster, more efficiently and with far greater precision than many existing standard procedures. The data captured by drones can also be integrated with BIM technologies to assist in the development of BIM models more accurately and efficiently.

Health and safety

A key advantage of drone technology is the potential for improvement in health and safety. Drones can be used to reduce the need for personnel to access potentially hazardous areas, including heights and confined spaces. Given falls from a height were the number one cause of industrial fatalities in Great Britain (PDF) from 2012-2017, any steps that can be taken to reduce the exposure of personnel to such risks are clearly beneficial.

Drones can be used to undertake surveys and monitoring at heights or confined spaces such as pipelines, for example, that may previously have been undertaken by personnel. Technology also continues to advance to allow more sophisticated use of unmanned vehicles in such spaces, beyond surveying and monitoring.

Challenges and regulation

Understandably, there are still challenges to be smoothed over including in relation to privacy, safety, misuse and the speed of technological advance. Regulatory change has struggled to keep pace with technological advances, although the government has committed to update the regulatory landscape to reflect the increasing and wider use of drones.

Despite the technology still being in its infancy, the construction industry is already clearly benefiting from the use of drones and there are significant further benefits to be realised as the technology and regulatory landscape continue to progress.