Bechtel gets the green light for drone-enabled construction

Bechtel has been granted permission for the commercial use of drones by the US Federal Aviation Administration. It means that the engineer will be one of the first construction companies to integrate autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles into its projects.

Bechtel’s drone programme is the result of its decision in 2013 to team up with Skycatch, a Californian start-up that has attracted investment from Google, among others. The firm was founded to build drones for data collection on building sites.

The data collected can be stored in a cloud and viewed by staff on site using handheld and desktop computers. The technology has already been given a test drive at Bechtel’s gigantic Curtis LNG projects in Australia (click here for YouTube footage captured by the drones). 

According to statement by the company, Bechtel will use the technology to collect real-time environmental data such as air quality and temperature, monitor safety, survey difficult and inaccessible terrain and track real-time construction progress.

Christian Sanz, the founder and chief executive of Skycatch, said the aim was to have a fleet of drones continually flying over the works to capture real time information about their progress, prevent mistakes and detect unsafe situations. 

Mike Lewis, Bechtel’s manager of construction, said: "The use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) is crucial to continued innovation in engineering and construction. We teamed with Skycatch to explore innovative ways of integrating drones into our execution systems, particularly on the megaprojects Bechtel is building around the world.

"This technology helps improve safety and quality of project delivery by providing real-time data and analysis to project teams so they can act in a timely manner."

Sanz said: "We have put a lot of thought into our drones and their operation, heavily focused on the safe and efficient use of the technology. We developed a unique platform connected to a cloud for real-time analytics, and with pre-programmed geographic controls for safe operation and compliance with flight announcements."

Skycatch drones use a patented automated power system that automatically recharges during operation, allowing them to fly for extended periods. They carry a variety of sensors, such as high-definition cameras, infrared scanners, thermal sensors, and radiation monitors.

A number of other construction companies are also investigating the uses of UASs. Two French giants, Bouygues and Vinci, have been early adopters of the technology. Bouygues also has a contract with Skycatch.

As well as site monitoring, research has been conducted into tasks such as locating failed solar panels in solar power stations and attaching cables to the drones in order to construct tensile structures. 

Photograph: Drone on: the flying robots will feed real-time information to site operatives (Skycatch)

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