Help from Above
Drones can Save Project Teams Time and Money. But Beware of the Unknown
BY CLAY DILLOW
PHOTO COURTESY OF 3D ROBOTICS, INC
Drones can save project teams time and money. But beware of the unknown.
Once just a remote-control toy for civilians, drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) have matured into valuable project management tools. Their cameras provide project managers access to big-picture views of project sites, allowing project teams to more easily assess progress, identify risks and manage stakeholder expectations.
Global sales of commercial drones this year are projected to increase 84% over 2015 to US$481 million.
Source: Juniper Research
Potential project benefits go well beyond aerial photography, however. Organizations increasingly are turning to drones to boost data gathering and worker safety. Indian Railways deploys drones to help generate detailed construction site status reports more quickly for project sites across the country—which helps ensure those projects stay on schedule. Global mining giant Rio Tinto uses drones to inspect equipment and project sites, particularly in difficult-to-reach and dangerous areas that imperil human inspectors, and when larger tools (such as helicopters) would increase cost.
It's no surprise that global sales of commercial drones this year are projected to increase 84 percent over 2015 to US$481 million, according to Juniper Research. And according to PwC, the global market for drone-powered business solutions reached US$127.3 billion in 2015; infrastructure projects were the main contributing factor. Construction, civil engineering, oil and gas, and telecommunications are all fueling the growth, as these sectors leverage drones to drive efficiency.
Yet the rapid adoption also presents unique challenges for project leaders, says Brett Hoffstadt, PMP, a project management and aerospace engineering consultant from Sacramento, California, USA who helps organizations integrate drones. Regulatory uncertainty and rapidly evolving technology mean drones fly project teams into uncharted territory and force them to prepare for unknowns.
“Drones have provided game-changing benefits for cost reductions, schedule compressions and quality improvements,” Mr. Hoffstadt says. “But there will be a lot of learning unique to each company and project.”
Organizations' attraction to drones is driven in part by an appetite for data, says Jesper Falk, market director and head of section for mapping and surveying at global engineering consulting firm COWI in Copenhagen, Denmark. When connected to the right mix of computing power and sensors, drones can provide project managers with deep insights to sharpen and speed decision-making and reduce project surprises.
A drone takes flight in Bulgaria.
For instance, temperature-sensing infrared cameras can detect weak spots in a building's insulation or leaks in plumbing or gas lines. Software tools can help project managers crunch that data into real-time project intelligence they've never had before.
“The benefit of drones on construction sites is that they are cost-effective compared to alternative methods,” Mr. Falk says. “You can collect data in the morning and submit the result at the end of the day; hence, the project manager has within a few hours an overview of the construction site in order to make the right decisions.”
What used to take human surveyors hours to complete can now be done in minutes with drones using algorithmic tools to measure volumes—of earth moved, of sand stockpiled, of concrete poured—and more efficiently allocate resources. Mr. Falk says COWI has found that time for surveying and processing has been cut to approximately 20 percent of the time the organization spent for these activities before it began to use drones.
These same programs also can stitch together multiple images to create a comprehensive view of an entire build site, overlaying technical drawings, hydrological maps or other imagery to help mitigate environmental, engineering and design risks. They can also generate precise 3-D models of the build site, allowing stakeholders across town—or around the world—to follow a project's progress and weigh in on potential risks or solutions.
“Drones have provided game-changing benefits for cost reductions, schedule compressions and quality improvements.”
—Brett Hoffstadt, PMP, Sacramento, California, USA
“When you have a drawing or a map, there will always be some room for interpretation,” says Francois Gervaix, product manager for surveying at drone maker SenseFly, Lausanne, Switzerland. “With drones there is no interpretation—it's a real picture of the real landscape: It's reality. Sitting in an office with the right information in front of the right people is much more effective than standing in the middle of the construction site.”
Data from drones also can provide additional value through re-use and redistribution, Mr. Hoffstadt says. For instance, sponsors and business teams can repurpose photo and video footage from drones for use in marketing materials, he says. It also can be used for future training content and quality control processes. “Project managers who incorporate drones can provide more value to the organization, beyond the execution of an individual project.”
SAVINGS FROM THE SKY
Drones also have the power to keep project budgets in line through efficiencies and cost savings, Mr. Falk says. For a construction site of 1 square kilometer (0.39 square miles), hiring a piloted airplane to produce overhead imagery plus a terrain map costs roughly €10,000, he says. Surveyors doing the same work on the ground might cost at least €5,000 and won't generate any valuable aerial imagery. A drone can collect overhead imagery and data for roughly €3,000, Mr. Falk says.
Across a range of industries, drones are giving project teams higher aspirations. The global market for drone-powered business solutions reached US$127.3 billion in 2015, according to a 2016 PwC report. These sectors led the way (in U.S. billion dollars):
Source: Clarity From Above, PwC, 2016
“You can collect data in the morning and submit the result at the end of the day; hence, the project manager has within a few hours an overview of the construction site.”
—Jesper Falk, COWI, Copenhagen, Denmark
Such cost savings allow drones to fly more frequently, offering project managers fresher data and imagery at more regular intervals. For COWI, that has allowed project managers to, for instance, double-check the volumes of earth excavated and moved by a contractor and help a road authority ensure its signage and markers were placed correctly on a new stretch of highway.
“In one excavation instance, it took us only 19 minutes to fly out and check,” Mr. Falk says. “And there was quite a big difference between the volumes of earth on the constructor's invoices and the volumes measured by the drones.”
A drone helped monitor refugees entering Macedonia from Greece in December 2015.
Using drones makes measuring the progress of the project easier—and occasionally creates unintended benefits, says Erwin Schreiber Chalén, PMP, project and systems supervisor, Entel, Lima, Peru. Mr. Schreiber also operates InkaCoptero, a business that uses drones to help project teams gather aerial imagery.
For example, the imagery Mr. Schreiber captured for a large dam construction project was designed to give project teams up-close views of a work area that is difficult to access through conventional methods. But the same imagery also prompted the project team to notice that excavation trucks were having to make several difficult maneuvers to both access the project site and turn around and exit. That imagery helped the team develop a new route that reduced driving costs, driving risks and the time it took to remove excavated materials.
“You have another view when you're using drones,” Mr. Schreiber says. “The team couldn't notice all that from ground level.”
The proliferation of drones across industries and projects only will accelerate as regulations restricting their use continue to ease, Mr. Hoffstadt says. But even as they become a new normal, project managers and their organizations should weigh potential benefits against new risks, complexities and costs.
“Introducing drones to your organization also introduces a new procurement source—it's essentially bringing an aviation operation into your business,” Mr. Hoffstadt says.
Project leaders must contend with a host of compliance issues and safety liabilities, spurring the need for organizations to invest time and money in training project teams so they understand the benefits and the risks of drones. “You have to manage stakeholder expectations about this,” Mr. Hoffstadt says. “It's not like buying a new printer. It's a new class of operations.”
Whether a project's use of drones is handled in-house or outsourced, project managers will be responsible for challenges that they must price into their project assessments, Mr. Hoffstadt says. “Finding or training people with the right skills, working with new stakeholders—such as local air traffic control—and integrating new tools and processes into your budgets and schedules will be a significant effort.”
For instance, both the commercial drone industry and the regulations that govern it are so new that vetting drone operators remains difficult, as lengthy track records are rare. For multinational organizations, regulations that vary around the world complicate matters. As industries and governments incorporate drones into their projects in different regions, a customized risk management approach is best.
Agriculture is the second-largest sector for drone use.
“If I'm managing a project to develop a piece of land, I want to make sure my drone operator isn't going to bring risk to my project,” says Lindsay Mohr, CEO of drone training and compliance consultancy AirMarket Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Those risks include controller errors that cause the drone to crash and injure people, damage property or—in a worst-case scenario—collide with manned aircraft, he says.
“Regulatory requirements are top of mind for any enterprise or institution that's thinking about integrating drones as a project tool. The Shells, the BPs, the big corporations, the governments—they need an assurance process that limits their liability.”
Regardless of any potential risks drones might introduce to a given project, their benefits are proving too great for organizations and their project teams to ignore, Mr. Gervaix says. For instance, his team is working to develop a system where a rotation of drones can monitor a project site nonstop—generating information in real time, any time a project manager needs it.
“We'll have drones flying longer, further and more automatically, and expect data from the air to always be flowing. On the construction site, we'll take it for granted.” PM
“Regulatory requirements are top of mind for any enterprise or institution that's thinking about integrating drones as a project tool.”
—Lindsay Mohr, AirMarket Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
PM NETWORK DECEMBER 2016 WWW.PMI.ORG
DECEMBER 2016 PM NETWORK