According to the UK Drone Usage Report 2016, the construction industry is one of the top five industries that are leading the way in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), with 17% of firms using flying robots to scope out work and monitor projects. Gary Wilson, a Fluxx engineering founding partner, discusses the evolution of digital technology.
WE CONSIDER drones to be primarily a visual tool, a mobile device with the ability to travel further than we dare and capture what it sees as photography or film. Drones, on the other hand, are a fantastic example of how digital technology combined with the Internet of Things can be both a threat and an opportunity for a business.
Drones are the new “app” – everyone thinks they need one and that they are the solution to all problems. However, they, like apps, completely distort our expectations. Suddenly, everyone thinks they should have one and use it.
However, drones pose a significant threat to many existing business models, and those who are slow to respond will be left on the sidelines.
Many organisations in the engineering and construction industries were quick to recognise the potential benefits of the drone, but I suspect that many were slower to recognise the potential threat this eye in the sky poses to their business.
Surveying has historically provided a good source of revenue for companies in this industry. A surveyor can be paid by the day to survey a site, which could take days or weeks. A drone, on the other hand, can complete the same task in minutes or hours. The advantage to the client is obvious, but what about the businesses that will lose revenue as a result?
Investigating alternative paths
However, if you stop there, you are passing up a significant opportunity. As we all know, drones aren’t just for taking pictures.
At the higher end, they are outfitted with instruments capable of collecting vast amounts of information about what they are surveying, and the speed with which they are deployed means that this data can be collected quickly and easily.
According to BBC News, Skycatch, a US start-up, is using drones on construction projects to provide a bird’s-eye view of a site and progress reports, speed up construction logistics by monitoring deliveries, and provide real-time updates on any changes that may need to be made.
Quarrying is another example. Traditionally, quarries are surveyed on an annual basis, and decisions are made within the same timeframe. However, quarries are literally changing on an hourly basis. Within days of completing a survey, it will have changed again.
At the moment, when the machinery moves on, areas of the quarry are left fallow, and the time between quarrying completion and the site being signed off for landfill can be months, if not years. During that time, no revenue is generated in the space.
More frequent surveys could mean that the time it takes to transition an area from one revenue-generating activity to another is drastically reduced, allowing money to be earned from the landfill conversion much faster.
So, in the case of the quarry, while the survey company may struggle to maintain its traditional revenue stream, the drone has provided the opportunity to create new ones, in the form of consultancy on how the sites can be managed more profitably.
Job creation vs. job loss
This may appear to be a very specific example, but the same theory applies to almost any part of this country’s physical infrastructure.
Take, for example, our railway infrastructure, where drone technology could easily replace engineers walking the lines. Although this is far safer for the engineers, the downside is that this particular job may eventually become obsolete.
The organisation that is currently supplying the engineers must be proactive in how it handles that level of disruption because the upside is that faults and issues will be identified and dealt with much more quickly, resulting in less travel disruption and lower maintenance costs.
There is a significant competitive advantage for businesses that can get ahead of that curve, as well as other jobs to be created in analytics and business advisory services to replace those lost in surveying.
In fact, the threat to revenue applies to almost any business that sells a service. The combination of digital tools and the Internet of Things will have a significant impact on any business that sells time because it will make a wide range of tasks far more efficient.
With the prevalence of drone technology and its impact on surveying, architects, engineers, and surveyors may be the first to feel the impact in terms of job losses, but it won’t be long before engineering consultancies of all sizes will have to re-engineer themselves and think of ways to monetise data from drones to ensure they are an opportunity rather than a threat.