Print this page
Sunday, 15 March 2015 22:00

West Michigan general contractor deploys drone to survey real estate projects

Written by 
Rate this item
(6 votes)
Triangle Associates used a drone to take aerial photographs and video of its progress on a project at Hudsonville Public Schools. Triangle Associates used a drone to take aerial photographs and video of its progress on a project at Hudsonville Public Schools. COURTESY PHOTO

When general contractor Triangle Associates Inc. wants to survey tall buildings or provide customers with an aerial perspective of their projects, the firm can now turn to a new piece of technology: an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), better known as a drone.

The Walker-based firm purchased the drone for about $1,300 late last year. Since then, it’s deployed the DJI Phantom 2 Vision — a model equipped with camera and video capabilities — as part of several projects.

According to executives, the drone has proven useful in quickly gathering visual data from job sites that the construction team can use to better deliver projects.

“We can just hop in a car or truck (with the drone) and get the information we need quickly,” said Jim Conner, Triangle’s vice president of business development. “We started using it like that, and it just took off.”

In the past, the general contractor would have to pay for cranes or lifts, and in some cases, even rent an airplane to get the visuals it needed for a given project, executives said. However, they’ve found the drone is a much more affordable option — one that also provides better results.

“With the quality of the video and the photography we are able to get, it has helped us realize we don’t need to conduct (work) at a high expense,” Connor said, indicating that the upfront cost of the drone is cheaper than some of the other surveillance options.

To date, Triangle has used its drone to survey parts of the Olds Manor building in downtown Grand Rapids ahead of its planned renovation. The firm also has deployed the drone as part of the remodeling project at Hudsonville Public Schools and the new construction of the Fox Motors Ford-Lincoln dealership in Chicago. Largely, the firm uses its drone to survey exterior features and get better skyline views than would be available from a crane, Conner said.

Executives added that they often relied on digital maps from services such as Google Earth, but they still were unable to capture the kinds of images they wanted. With the drone, Triangle is able to provide the images in real time.

The firm had been closely watching the technology as it emerged from strictly being used for sophisticated military operations and grew in popularity for more commercial applications in recent years, said Mark Boersma, Triangle’s IT manager.

Drone technology, however, is also being closely monitored by the federal government, which has strict regulations governing its commercial use.

Lawyers MiBiz spoke with indicated that unless a commercial firm receives an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), drone use for commercial purposes is technically illegal.

“I take the conservative approach because of the absence of a clear picture from the FAA,” said Christopher Baker, an attorney in Varnum LLP’s Novi office.

Currently the most common exemption is known as Section 333, which allows for certain uses on a case-by-case basis, according to the FAA website. Certificates are largely granted based on aircraft worthiness and drone pilots being licensed.

Triangle has not received any exemptions from the FAA, Boersma said, adding that as far as the firm is concerned, the benefits of using the drone outweigh the risks.

Since the company does not charge its clients for using its drone technology, it views it simply as a value-add proposal and not technically commercial use.

That kind of use could still be risky, Baker said.

The attorney used a hypothetical example of a farmer flying a drone on his land simply as a hobby. That would be fine, he said, as long certain height restrictions and other regulations are followed. But it could become problematic if the farmer decided to use that drone to survey his crops.

“I don’t think the FAA’s intent is to make it simple,” Baker said of regulations on the use of drones. “They want to regulate the airspace. They view (drones) as a significant part of that airspace. I think the best you’ll get is regulations you can work with and (that) are consistent.”

For its part, Triangle eagerly awaits those regulatory changes.

“At this point, FAA regulations have been very ambiguous, as anyone who has read them knows,” Boersma said. “As far as commercial use, they are supposedly releasing new regulations, which they have kind of hinted at. That will hopefully streamline things and make it more of a useful tool for us.”

Despite the regulatory hurdles to using the drone, Triangle’s clients have responded positively, executives said.

“The feedback from our project management is that jaws hit the floor,” Boersma said. “They think it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread. There is no other way to capture this imagery.”

Triangle largely feels it is on the cutting edge of what Boersma called a “developing trend” in the construction industry.

According to a recent report in the trade publication Equipment World, Boersma could be right.

“(M)any in the construction industry are finding drones and UAVs can play a vital role in their work,” the report stated. “Whether they’re used for surveying, to show clients and potential clients an aerial overview of completed projects, to monitor job sites to ensure safe practices or to inspect bridges and other structures, drones have the potential to become as important a tool to the industry as any piece of yellow iron.”

Triangle’s Conner certainly sees it that way.

“The use of technology is making things hyper-fast,” he said. “This is another tool in the arsenal.”

Read 7118 times Last modified on Monday, 16 March 2015 13:15