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For more than 2,500 years, the crane has ruled the construction site. But is all that about to change? Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, have rushed into the world of construction.

They are challenging how and what type of construction is being performed. In its simplest form, a drone is a platform of processors, sensors and propellers running software that is connected to other software through the use of wireless network connections. More complex manifestations of drones include, but are not limited to, Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters (without a pilot) or automated synchronous cooperation of many UAVs to achieve complex tasks such as lifting material to any point on a construction site.

Do drones have the ability to replace cranes in the near future or does cooperation between the two better express what is about to happen on the construction site? Can the cost per hour of a helicopter be priced reasonably enough to potentially replace cranes if human resources are removed from the equation? Will drones be able to lift materials or access any point on the construction site and then be used for other tasks to the extent that they are more valuable to the construction process? Will manufacturers begin to design materials with drones in mind? In short, can drones replace cranes?

Drones vs Cranes ChartThe chart illustrates the potential for drones to deliver greater value to the construction process. Is it realistic that drones will replace the crane anytime soon? No. Is cooperation between drones and cranes more realistic? Yes. Drones have the immediate potential to make construction more efficient through lifting materials and tools like a crane, but in a different and more productive way.

How? Today, automated drones can deliver tools, small materials and food to the jobsite, saving time that workers spend traveling vertically or horizontally. This process improvement could potentially make skilled laborers more productive during the day, leading to a faster build process while improving the efficiency of the crane to perform higher priority tasks and reducing elevator traffic so more deliveries could be made.

As the number of human resources on the jobsite declines through prefabrication, robotics and automation, the number of drones and the size of drones on the jobsite will increase. There is an inverse relationship between humans and onsite technology.

Construction Industry Challenges

The challenge the construction industry is facing has forced firms to search for answers in technology. Technology firms have been quick to answer the call, but in doing so, they have disrupted the entire industry, allowing competition to come from anywhere. Construction firms must think outside the box and find answers to shrinking profit margins, increased liability, higher labor costs and faster build schedules.

Drones are becoming part of that solution. For instance, use of drones can limit the time and availability in which elevators are being used to move materials and tools to any point on the construction site (whether it be horizontal, vertical, inside or outside). The result is increased utilization of elevators, cranes and skilled labor with an overall increase in job efficiency.

Drones can add value to the construction process by delivering material from staging areas that are not located at the base of the construction site, delivering the material directly where it is needed, freeing up the delivery space below for larger, high-priority items that need to be delivered by crane.

If helicopters can be used to install heavy machinery to roofs of buildings, then why can’t an automated unmanned helicopter (simply a different size drone) do the same? What is the cost when labor is removed from the equation? Drones are the answer to many of these challenges. The versatility, flexibility and the ability to be automated are just too valuable to ignore.

Into the Future

The possibility of drones totally replacing cranes is highly unlikely, but a world of cooperation between automated drones and automated cranes is the vision of the immediate future. Cooperation on a construction site will lead to a more efficient and automated processes.

Cranes will continue to be the workhorses on the construction site of tomorrow along with drones and other technologies that are specifically fitted to work in conjunction with cranes to improve equipment utilization and construction process efficiency. What will most undoubtedly change is the amount of technology, the level of automation and reduction of human resources used in the construction process.

A drone captured aerial views of Apple’s new Cupertino campus. SkyCatch has created a fully automated drone system with flight reservation, flight data streaming and battery changes. The same can be found with cranes, as Trimble has shown with its automated crane system. In the near future, materials will be tagged with Radio Frequency Identifiers (RFID) that will identify location and automatically instruct the crane to pick up and deliver to the construction site with computer-aided efficiency. With the power of these two automated devices, the construction site will change forever.

The trend to remove humans from processes in order to reduce costs, increase efficiency, reduce liability, increase building speed, reduce errors and increase safety will continue and be amplified by automated systems in cranes and drones. The fully automated construction yard will operate as a system of systems and will reshape competition within the construction industry by erasing the boundaries between traditional building roles and other industries.
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