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As Drone Technology Takes Flight, Data Storage Becomes Key

BY DEBRA WOOD

With the popularity and complexity of drone technologies, storing and analyzing the data can create challenges for contractors. Members and vendors have taken different approaches to turning that data into useful images and models.

“Drone data is only as useful as it is accessible,” says Hunter Cole, innovation and operational technology specialist for Brasfield & Gorrie in Birmingham, Alabama, a member of multiple AGC chapters. “Traditional desktop processing workflows, while highly customizable, result in quite large files that are not easily viewed and manipulated without special hardware and training. Cloud-based platforms democratize the ability to interact with the drone data for teams across the company, who can then view and manipulate the drone information through their web browser or mobile device.”

Tukuh’s Terry Pallotto launches a senseFly eBee. Photo credit: Jeff Roberts

KEEPING EVERYTHING IN HOUSE

Desktop or laptop programs require significant storage and memory to process drone data.

Cole reports when processing in house, Brasfield & Gorrie’s go-to system for processing drone data features a 3.4 GHz 16-core processor, 32 gigabytes of RAM, 11 gigabytes of graphics memory, and 2 terabytes of solid state drive storage.

“Processing on the desktop requires more expertise,” says Jim Greenberg, unmanned aircraft systems manager at Trimble in Westminster, Colorado. In-house processing also takes more of the end user’s time than cloud processing.

“They may find the time spent working with the data may not be the best use of their time,” Greenberg says. “I believe in the future fewer people in construction will be using desktop” processing.

Additionally, computing power and software are costly. However, the contractor retains complete control.

“We prefer to do it ourselves,” says Dan Jordan with James McHugh Construction Co. in Chicago, a member of Chicagoland AGC, which maintains control of its images and data used for marketing, generating 3D models, quality control and inspection, and monitoring construction activity. “I can process photos for a model in draft form in the field in about 30 minutes and can quickly assess if what I created presents useful data.”

McHugh uses Pix4D software. A recent 20-minute marketing flight by Jordan resulted in 32 gigabytes of data. When the drone lands, he backs up the file in a separate memory device. Back in the office, he places it on a server, using a traditional file system, building in some redundancy.

The data may be stored on the desktop or on a server at the place of business. Regardless of where you store the data, always label the files to make searching easier. If Jordan wants to share the images with others on the team, he will place them in Dropbox. Internet speeds must be sufficient to handle large uploads.

Despite liking total control, Jordan says for contractors with larger drone programs, completing everything in house will require adding personnel; at such time, outsourcing processing might be a better option.

“As things scale larger, Internet-based processing makes more sense,” Jordan says.

OUTSOURCING FLYING AND PROCESSING

“Data management is a huge problem, because drones generate a large amount of data,” says Terry Pallotto, technology innovation manager at Tukuh Technologies in Kansas City, Missouri, which flies drones, collects and processes the data.

Some contractors are finding it easier to hire a company that specializes in drone imaging. Anyone flying a drone must follow government regulations.

“Compliance is where the change is happening when deciding to hire a specialty firm,” says Jennifer Ludwig, operations manager at Tukuh. For instance, a construction firm might “want to use drones but does not have anyone to take on that responsibility.”

Brasfield & Gorrie employs a hybrid approach. Although 30 of its employees are Federal Aviation Administration-certified pilots, the company also will outsource drone flights when special FAA authorizations or expertise in a specific type of data collection are required.

“We also partner with external drone service providers when appropriate to execute flights for a particular deliverable or in a new market area,” Cole says.

PROCESSING AND STORING IN THE CLOUD

Cloud storage allows team members to access data on multiple devices. Everyone can be looking at the same image at one time. However, accesS to cloud storage requires a strong Internet connection, Morris says.

With some cloud storage vendors, such as Trimble Stratus, contractors can compare drone images taken at two different times to assess what has been accomplished, calculate changes in measurements and observe the evolution of the site. Stratus organizes the data by flight date.

Oracle and its partners offer software that overlays the images with the schedule to help the contractor determine if work is progressing as planned, explains Burcin Kaplanoglu, executive director and innovation officer for Oracle in Chicago. Its Aconex software allows people to collaborate using the models, drawings, layouts and topography.

Trik in London also processes drone images in the cloud. It produces 3D models, which can then be viewed on a timeline. Vojta Petrus, product manager for Trik, says its software organizes all construction data around the model in a digital twin manner.

Security is a concern for anyone using the cloud. Vendors have taken action to keep clients’ data safe.

EMPLOYING A HYBRID MODEL

Drone images are high resolution, and that makes them large, about four to eight megabytes. One 30-minute drone flight may produce 500 photos, which can exceed 3 gigabytes in storage needs.

“Stitching photos together takes an enormous amount of space,” says Raynald Morris, chief information officer at W.M. Jordan Co. of Newport News, Virginia, a member of AGC of Virginia and Carolinas AGC. “Surveying takes many, many pictures.”

W.M. Jordan uploads its drone images to an outside vendor, DroneDeploy, which will process the images, stitch them together and notify Morris when the final image is processed and ready for view. Although processing is possible at the desktop, it takes time and talent. Morris keeps data for current projects on a server in the office and then archives images to a third-party system, when he no longer needs to access immediately.

“We feel it is best to pay the money to have local storage for the stuff we are working on frequently,” Morris says.

Brasfield & Gorrie keeps copies of the original imagery on its cloud storage platform in designated project folders.

One 30-minute drone flight may produce 500 photos, which can exceed 3 gigabytes in storage needs. With some cloud storage vendors, contractors can compare drone images taken at two different times to assess what has been accomplished, calculate changes in measurements and observe the evolution of the site.

“This allows us to quickly recover, share or reference the data with our project teams and partners who need to process the data with their tool of choice,” says Ryan Hittie, project innovation specialist at Brasfield & Gorrie. Employees fly most of the company’s drone flights. The pilots are careful to respect the right to privacy and security and keep all drone flights over the project site.

Brasfield & Gorrie also uses DroneDeploy for processing and storage. The data can be viewed on any device, be it a computer, tablet or a cell phone. Cole adds that intuitiveness and usability of a platform should be considered when selecting a vendor.

“We think the adoption of drone data in construction management at Brasfield & Gorrie is largely due to our modern cloud-based platform’s ability to reduce the learning curve typically required to interact with this type of data,” Cole concludes.

Whether a contractor opts to fly its own drones and process drone images in house or outsources all or part of the process to a drone specialist, drones are becoming part of the construction business. Morris encourages fellow contractors to join those already deploying drones. “You cannot be afraid of the technology, or you will be left behind,” Morris said. “It’s an exciting time.”