Two years in: Lessons learned using Drone Surveying on Construction Sites

Last week, one of our project managers requested that I fly our topographic survey drone over a job site in Charlottesville. However, three inches of snow fell yesterday, and since drones treat snow and dirt the same way, there’s only a point in going on-site once it clears. Instead, I’ll spend some time recapping our experience with drone survey tech and the lessons we’ve learned.

Understand and Communicate the Use Cases

We followed the user manual when we started using drones to survey sites. Buy Drone. Fly Drone. Process Data. Succeed.

Turns out, it’s a little more complicated than that.

We flew our job sites, processed the data, and assumed that our team would take that and run with it seamlessly. We missed a crucial step. We should have defined the specific use cases for our distinct team groups and communicated how the technology addressed those.

This omission hampered our program from the start. Our team was reluctant to adopt the technology into their workflow because it wasn’t clearly defined.

For example, our field staff thought they needed the estimating team to input the data into our earthwork modeling software to get progress reports. They needed to be adequately trained in the technology’s reporting capabilities, which resulted in low uptake among our field staff.

Our team spent more time convincing groups within the company that the technology was worthwhile rather than diving deeper into the uses and potential applications. Targeted conversations and appropriate training based on the specific use cases would have mitigated this.

Appreciate the Platform’s Limitations

Drone technology is impressively accurate. A drone flying 300 feet above the ground can capture elevation data that’s accurate within inches. Across a 40-acre job site, however, inches add up. While smaller than ever, this variance can have an outsize impact on earthmoving profitability if not accounted for correctly.

We assumed that because we checked every box, our data was perfect. Where we fell flat was figuring out how to safeguard data quality with checks and balances.

Luckily, we employ the best and brightest. Our field staff recognized both drone technology’s utility and limitations and used it in concert with existing means and methods to make informed decisions. For example, our team on a balanced earthwork site coupled drone data with haul truckload counts to get an accurate picture of their progress.

Train Everyone

Have you ever played the game telephone? Two teams start with the same message and pass it along the team members via whisper. Once it gets to the receiver, the winning team is the one with the message that’s closest to the original.

We saw a similar effect when sharing knowledge from training sessions. Details are glossed over, operational steps skipped, and the information, and thus its value, is diluted as the message is passed along.

In 2024, we aim to involve our drone partners in regular, targeted trainings for as many team members as possible. The goal of this is twofold. First, by training and retraining our drone operators, we’ll continue to preserve a high level of operational proficiency and, in turn, data quality. Second, we want to continually increase the adoption of the technology across our operations and estimating teams so that it becomes a part of their project workflows.

I’ll wrap this up before the snow starts melting. We’re firm believers in the value that drone topography offers. But we’ve learned, admittedly the hard way, that a successful drone program must include effective communication of the technology, alignment with operational goals, and consistent training sessions to ensure operational excellence. The bottom line is return on investment; meeting these three conditions substantially increases the likelihood of a positive return.