Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones seem to be dominating many conversations in the construction industry. But can a drone help improve your business? Absolutely.
The asphalt industry has taken these drones from a marketing tool and turned them into a real way to increase profits in their plant operations and beyond. At the asphalt plant, drones are primarily used for quantities measurement, site preparation and inspections and using them can help save contractors an exceptional amount of time and money.
As plant owners know, the various materials and aggregate in asphalt are inventory that have a monetary value attached to them. Measuring the volume of stockpiles accurately is key in determining the value of the material. A drone can be used to fly over the stockpiles to collect aerial imagery from which accurate quantities can be measured.
“Accurate material inventory allows asphalt companies to properly serve their customer orders, as well as improve a steady state for production level-based demand,” Jason Nichols, product marketing manager at Kespry says. “Traditional survey methods used to measure inventory are often inaccurate, time-consuming and dangerous. Drone technology is up to 80% more accurate than traditional survey methods and removes workers form active and dangerous environments. Using an end-to-end commercial drone solution, companies are flying as often as needed, reducing labor costs and ensuring annual write downs are reduced by 95%.”
Currently, there are several traditional survey methods used to measure stockpiles each of these methods involve a substantial amount of labor hours to physically walk the site and use the equipment to measure each pile.
“Quarry and stockpile management are done today by all sorts of methods including flyovers by manned aircraft, GPS topo surveys, laser scanners, and perhaps the most common – stepping it off,” says Chase Fly, geospatial product manager with Delair. “Each method has its tradeoff whether it be too expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, or inaccurate. A ground-based survey may take several hours or even days, while a drone could be done in a half hour in the file, then the measurements taken in the office from a computer.”
Nichols says surveying with a drone is a fairly straightforward process that has three main steps. First is mission planning, which is typically completed on an iPad where the area to be surveyed is outlined with by drawing a polygon. Second is automated flight and data upload. The drone flies by itself--with no joysticks--to complete the mission outlined in the first step and then automatically transfers the data to the cloud. The last step is data processing and analysis. Once the data has been automatically processed customers are able to perform a complete inventory analysis within hours of the flight.
“A typical site of approximately 30 acres can be flown in less than 30 minutes,” Nichols says. “This same site using traditional methods could take an entire day or more. The hours of labor saved can be an accumulation of both time saved in the field as well as time saved not processing raw data.
"Plus, drone data can be collected frequently than a manual process allowing companies to see real-time changes in inventories and balance them to production levels, giving operation and sales teams the ability to better fill orders and forecast. Kespry customers have found an 84% reduction in labor costs when measuring stockpiles across multiple sites.”
Reduced labor costs aren’t the only reason to invest in a drone.
“Using a drone also keeps your people safer since they do not have to be on piles or out on site around heavy machinery,” Fly adds. “Cost savings can also be significant, even thousands of dollars per survey. And the accuracy can improve as well since a drone survey provides a much higher density of points than traditional ground based surveys.”
Once the area is surveyed, the data gets uploaded to the computer for accurate mapping.
"Photos are taken throughout the flight and these photos are later imported into a computer program where they will be “stitched” together to create one big aerial map of the entire site," Fly says. "Layers generally consist of a digital surface model (DSM), a point cloud, and an orthophoto. The DSM or point cloud can then be used to measure the volume by simply drawing a polygon around the base of the pile."
Drone Decision Making
Deciding which drone to buy can be a daunting task. Make sure you do your research to see what model will best suit your needs.
"There are key questions to ask before making a purchase," Nichols says. "Is the drone made for it the harsh nature of an asphalt plant environment? How often you would like to perform inventories? What data packages are available for daily flights? Can you grow with the drone and software technology? Are you confident it will evolve to meet your needs?"
"A contractor in this industry really needs a drone that is optimized for mapping and aerial survey," Fly adds. "Multirotor drones will serve some needs such as visual or video inspections of equipment and surveys of small sites, while a professional fixed wing mapping drone will cover more ground in less time and integrate PPK GNSS technology for high-accuracy measurements that are repeatable."
"There are a lot of choices these days. It’s best to know what you’re trying to achieve with a drone solution," Nichols says. "Several factors should be considered when conducting research, including levels of accuracy, ease of use, customer support and data analysis and integration. Several packages are available on the market and can come in a variety of options."
Other Uses for Drones
In addition to mapping your stockpiles, drones can also be useful to safely monitor problems at your asphalt plant.
"Drones are capable of detecting temperature changes, gas leaks, or damage using a combination of specialized sensors and artificial intelligence to detect and identify potential plant problems," Nichols says. "The technology is becoming more readily available in the commercial drone space and will be more common as demand drives this next phase of development."
"An aerial view of an asphalt can give a site manager a way to monitor what is happening on site from a perspective he would not have otherwise," Fly adds. "Photos and videos from a drone can be used not only to do quick visual inspections, but to create 3D models of a site and all the infrastructure on it for closer inspection, hazard analysis, and more."
Having a drone can also help you with site management as well.
"An asphalt plant may need to do some earth work to prepare a site for stocking, loading, or hauling material," Fly says. "Drones can be used to conduct an accurate survey of the ground to help determine the most efficient way to prepare the surface for inventory or construction of machinery."
A drone can help an asphalt plant be more efficient, accurate, and safe in their stockpile measurements and site surveys. In addition, it can also provide a more thorough inspection of plant facilities which will enable problems to get caught sooner and maintenance to be done more effectively.
Regardless of what drone you choose, make sure you work with an authorized distributor partner to make sure you get the necessary training, certifications (see sidebar) and support you need to successfully operate your drone