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Problem Solver

PLATFORM HELPS CONTRACTORS IMPROVE THE ACCURACY OF DRONE MAPPING FOR A WHOLE HOST OF APPLICATIONS

BY KATIE KUEHNER-HEBERT

Mark S. Blacklin, lead virtual design and construction (VDC) engineer at Hensel Phelps’ Hawaii State Hospital project in Kaneohe, Hawaii, says the road to Propeller began when his team started searching for a platform where they could share drone data among all of the data users within the Hensel Phelps organization, a member of multiple AGC chapters.

Hensel Phelps Honolulu Airport project. PHOTO COURTESY OF PROPELLER

“Previously we didn’t have a suitable platform to share data with everyone in the company — we were creating large amounts of drone data, but all of that data stayed solely within our virtual design and construction department,” Blacklin says. “But we need to share data sets and coordinates with managers, engineers — all the way to estimators and marketing, you name it. Just about everyone needs this data.”

The VDC team explored Propeller’s new platform and capabilities with two beta test pilot projects, and started using Propeller’s drone solution in June of 2018. The Hawaii State Hospital was the kick-off project using the solution, and Hensel Phelps is also using it on the Mauka extension of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport project in Honolulu.

“Propeller’s solution was really well-received, as everyone liked getting accurate and timely data back from the drone,” he says. “So now we’re starting to use Propeller’s solution on a large scale across the company, sharing data from all of our projects which utilize drones to capture project data.”

Other drone mapping solutions have platforms for data analysis, but the results are not as comprehensive as the Propeller solution, which has a two-handed approach — hardware and software, Blacklin says. Hensel Phelps uses the ground control point hardware to improve the accuracy of the data, and the contractor also uses Propeller’s software solution “with tremendous success.”

Hensel Phelps uses Propeller’s solution to conduct in-house earthwork monitoring in order to plan excavation, grading and backfill activities, minimizing the need to conduct laborious conventional surveys

“Propeller’s platform, in my opinion, has the best interface for viewing, digesting and sharing data,” he says. “It’s very visual, very intuitive, easy to use — anybody can pick it up, run with it, and work with the data.”

Hensel Phelps uses Propeller’s solution to conduct in-house earthwork monitoring in order to plan excavation, grading and backfill activities, minimizing the need to conduct laborious conventional surveys. The solution’s 3D site visualization also aids in site planning and logistics, as well as more accurately tracking the progress of work because the drone surveys sites every two to three days. Propeller’s 3D site visualization also makes it easier to show owners emerging conflicts that could hold up the entire project.

The solution also aids in maintaining safer jobsites. Hensel Phelps uses Propeller to not only take their personnel out of hazardous areas, but also do better safety briefings with up-to-date visuals of the jobsites. 

“We’ve dealt with other drone providers that have a very technology-heavy approach,” says Blacklin, “whereby everything is automated, including customer support. But with Propeller, people are the ones providing customer support, and those relationships are very important.”

Moreover, Blacklin can call the lead product designers and even Propeller’ CEO, which really “speaks volumes on how they are willing to work with customers,” he says.

PROPELLER’S EVOLUTION: TOTAL WORKSITE MANAGEMENT

Five years ago, Propeller, headquartered in Sydney, Australia, with a North American office in Denver, set out to “make drones a thing,” says Anthony Cronin, sales engineer.

“The original idea was to engineer high-powered, fully automated drones that could quickly scan worksites and transmit the captured images,” Cronin says. “Quickly realizing the real problem with drone surveying workflows occurred after the aerial data was collected, Propeller shifted gears to put out new fires — photogrammetric processing and worksite management.”

To resolve the post-processing dilemma, Propeller introduced a 3D visualizer called the Propeller Platform. The platform uses survey data to fuel interactive site maps that customers leverage to monitor progress, quantify material movement and audit processes, resolving the post-processing dilemma. After that, Propeller partnered with DJI to build a fully integrated workflow that combines collection, processing and analysis to eliminate the worksite data deficit. 

Users simply activate and drop one Propeller AeroPoint verification point on the ground near the drone’s takeoff point. They then fly the DJI Phantom 4 RTK drone using a preprogrammed flight path. After a single upload, the Propeller solution processes data and makes it viewable on the Propeller Platform.

Despite the aggressive marketing claims with other solutions of getting survey-grade results with zero ground control points, surveyors around the world still recommend that in order to get the best possible results, one ground control point should be used. AeroPoints represent a real point on the ground that worksites can use to match their projected positions in the sky against. By marrying what’s happening up above to what’s happening down below, Propeller customers achieve 1/10 (3cm) of accuracy.

EXPANDING USES FOR PROPELLER’S SOLUTION

What has been the biggest single advantage to construction firms in embracing drone technology? It’s a chain reaction, Cronin says.

“Because drone surveying costs less than traditional surveying, worksites can survey more frequently,” he says. “With more frequent flyovers comes more up-to-date data, and with current worksite data, you can better evaluate operations.”

“The more questions you can answer with one tool, the more valuable that tool is,” he says. “Drone surveying combines camera technology and cutting edge — yet affordable — UAV hardware to collect aerial data that worksites apply to answer quantitative and qualitative questions they never could before.”

While drone surveying can be a straightforward process, it draws from a few different parts that must sync up to be successful, Cronin says.

Hensel Phelps Hospital project. PHOTO COURTESY OF PROPELLER

“Propeller conquers compatibility pains by limiting the number of variables a user is concerned with,” he says. “The result is less time fixing issues with collection, accuracy and data and more time spent tracking, estimating and managing.”

With Propeller, customers have the opportunity to offload their data processing, rather than continue to self-process, and adopt a fully integrated workflow that combines “smart” ground control, DJI’s Phantom 4 RTK, and the Propeller Platform for a total worksite management approach. 

After nailing down a better means of collecting data via drones and AeroPoints, worksites began exploring how to apply drone data in project management workflows, Cronin says. Now, the construction industry is moving toward total worksite management — a place where surveying, drone data, progress tracking and 3D visuals combine in a single fully integrated solution. No more arbitrary, one-off measurements or disparate site data. 

“As the drone ecosystem continues to mature, the supporting products will grow in parallel,” he says. “We expect that in the coming years, construction sites will seek out a way to unify and manage all the many moving parts on site using a singular software solution.”

IT’S TIME TO JOIN THE DIGITIZATION MOVEMENT

Right now there’s an acute labor shortage plaguing the construction industry, while the labor demands continue to increase, Cronin says. Worksites have no choice but to adopt technology that helps the human resources they have accomplish more in less time. 

“The return on investment of relatively inexpensive drone hardware and software funnels in on all fronts — collection hardware puts time back on the clock, progress tracking keeps costly mistakes at bay, a record of meeting deadlines helps you win new business and investing in continued learning for your team prevents turnover,” he says. 

The technology surrounding flight planning, processing and analysis have improved to the point where within just a few days customers are using the data from their own drone surveys to make more efficient decisions. These decisions will directly impact bids, orders and pay apps. “Simply put, investing in digitization is investing in the future of your business,” he says. “The next generation of worksites is data-driven, connected and drone-
powered.”