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Engineering with drones

Alastair Low-Macrae, of our Structural Futures Committee, discusses how drones could alter the face of construction and help future engineers.

Drone technology has exploded recently, as hobbyists fuel commercial growth and technology giants like Google and Amazon direct vast sums of money into drone research - specifically their integration with artificial intelligence.

Amazon’s parcel delivery research is currently making the headlines, but I believe one of the best places in which drone technology could be explored and tested would be a construction site.

The perfect testing ground

Sites are typically compact, away from the public and filled with constant risks. This represents the perfect testing ground and a great opportunity for a contractor/ design team that wishes to be at the forefront of technological research.

Without a doubt, the use of drones in construction will spread – good clients are always looking for value through the application of technology. After a few high profile successes, clients will begin to ask for their conceptual design reports to include studies related to the possible value of drone applications.

Drones could have immediate practical applications on a construction site: positioning tools and fixings overnight where workers require them. In some instances they are already being used by specialist contractors to conduct complex site surveys.

Furthermore, the scope of drone related operations could be expanded further in an industry that truly embraces fabrication, as the machines excel at completing modular repetitive tasks.

Research

Certain academic institutions (the Architectural Association’s Design Research Laboratory, The University of Bath, University College London & Imperial College) have already begun researching far more ambitious drone construction techniques.

The main theme behind this research is linked to their autonomous capabilities. The research typically explores how drones could be remote controlled to build structures in inaccessible places, quickly and safely - which could be hugely helpful in areas cut off by natural disasters.

This research typically theorises multiple drones working together, carrying material and laying them out in a specific pattern, requiring the drones to have advanced levels of communication and risk awareness, operating as a coordinated swarm.

Adapt to embrace change

This is obviously still a long way from reality. However, as the physical hardware becomes better and the integration of artificial intelligence becomes realistic, drones will change the way we design and construct.

The industry must learn to adapt: as technology replaces traditional jobs, we must invest in existing workers, retraining them as drone operators, programmers and safety managers.

We must embrace the technology as its own specialism, perhaps even forming drone consultancies to be brought in on particular projects; and we must recognise the contribution drones could make to safety, eliminating the need for people to work at height and in other hazardous situations.

Drones will play a fascinating role evolving engineering and other professions – the really exciting thing is that we are only beginning to realise the possibilities.

Watch video of drones stacking bricks.

Additional information

Format:
Blog
Publisher:
IStructE

Tags

Research & Innovation Blog Conceptual Design Structural Futures Committee

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