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July 27, 2023

Here's how Skanska uses a network of drones to keep its projects humming

  • Drone experts monitor project safety, operations and preconstruction processes.
    Special to the Journal

    Images courtesy of Skanska [enlarge]
    Skanska’s drone network has evolved into a community of over 50 active pilots.

    Skanska put together a drone video of construction at Portland International Airport that transitions into a rendering of the new terminal.

    As Amazon and Walmart tackle the challenges of drone deliveries, Skanska is perfecting the use of drones on construction projects.

    Skanska launched its drone network as a way to track progress on construction sites.

    Skanska now has a national network of drone experts and a drone community to monitor project safety, operations, preconstruction processes and marketing.

    Brooke Gemmell, Skanska's emerging technology project manager, said Skanska began to realize the usefulness of drones eight years ago.

    That flight of fancy, which originally launched with just two licensed pilots, turned into Skanska's national drone network.

    “The drone network was formally created in response to the Federal Aviation Administration's requirement that all drone pilots be licensed for commercial work,” according to Gemmell. “Since then, the drone network has evolved into a vibrant community of more than 70 members across our building, civil and commercial development business units, with 50 active pilots operating 30 drones.”

    Skanska uses the drone network exclusively on projects in which Skanska is involved, either as the builder or developer.

    Gemmell said all prospective Skanska drone pilots must earn FAA Part 107 certification and attend Skanska's in-person drone pilot training. The training allows new pilots to learn about Skanska's drone policies, safety procedures and the flight planning process.

    After the classroom portion of the training, Skanska takes the pilots into the field to learn the key drone operations they will deploy on their own projects.

    “With a 3-1 student to instructor ratio, all new pilots get ample time to fly the drone and practice all essential flight skills like creating waypoint missions, making orthomosaic maps and capturing 360 (degree) photos, videos, and perspective photos,” she said.

    Two projects where the use of drones has been particularly helpful are the Link light rail extension project (L300) in Lynnwood and the redevelopment of Portland International Airport, she said.

    At L300, the team has used drones to help provide weekly updates on the project, which includes several miles of rail track, dozens of bridges crossing over roads and over Interstate 5, as well as building new parking facilities. With a miles-long jobsite, Gemmell said it takes more time and battery power to capture the entirety of the project, which means extensive operational planning.

    “But that smart planning and execution is just a fraction of the time that would be involved in documenting the project without the use of drones, meaning countless hours saved and a better, more comprehensive overall project report each week,” she said.

    “Portland International Airport allowed Skanska pilots to be the first contractors to operate drones at the airport. Skanska used drones extensively during the complex terminal core redevelopment project. Drone-captured video and photos provided real-time, detailed reports on the site's progress. The drones helped document and ensure that the work we did on the airport's pinnacle piece — a 9-acre, 18 million-pound, curved, mass timber roof — fell within the 3/8-inch joint tolerance required.”

    The drone network keeps up on the latest drone technology.

    “We leverage many different types of drones across Skanska, but certainly the most common daily driver is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro,” Gemmell said. “This drone is extremely reliable, delivers excellent quality footage and is compatible with the flight planning software we use to create orthomosaic maps of project sites. We have several teams flying DJI Mavic 3 Pro drones, which provide a higher quality capture, but have extremely limited compatibility with flight planning software.”

    She said several teams have been experimenting with first-person-view drones to create immersive fly-through videos of projects.

    “Software advances have allowed our teams to automate more aspects of our flight planning and execution,” she said. “The Litchi flight planning app and Google Earth extension allow us to visualize a flight path around a building before it's constructed. We can import a BIM model and generate a simulated flight to ensure flight plans at the beginning of the project can be leveraged throughout the entire duration of construction.”

    The Luma app allows Skanska to capture drone content. “The development of robust drone software will continue to drive automation of drone flights, reducing flight time and risk of drone operations, and increasing precision and consistency of captures.”

    Weather can be a factor for drones, she said. If it's raining or extremely foggy, Skanska does not fly drones, and if there are strong winds above 20 mph, they don't fly. The pilots usually avoid flying on extremely bright and sunny times of the day as well, as this can wash out the photos and make it difficult to spot the drone in a sunny sky.

    Skanska's pilots even fly drones on their days off. “As with any skill, practice makes perfect, so it's great to have our drone operators get flying time whenever they can, whether on projects or recreationally,” Gemmell said.

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