The built environment is undergoing a digital transformation with technology such as drones impacting the whole value chain from design through to operation of buildings and infrastructure.
RMIT drone experts and researchers Professor Simon Watkins and Dr Alex Fisher discuss current research and innovation as well as challenges of the use of technology for data driven design and construction.
Watkins and Fisher work in RMIT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research Team (RUASRT), a multi-disciplinary group of researchers dedicated to enabling safe and routine operation of drones across civil, commercial and defence applications.
The pair also work with RMIT Europe to extend the University's research strengths in drone technology to Europe.
How are drones mostly used?
Watkins: The cost-effective "eye in the sky" is currently the most used application. Of course the eye can also be an infra-red sensor, an ear or some of the multitude of other sensors that are becoming cheaper and lighter. A drone hasn't quite become the "hand in the sky" yet, but delivery is being trialled in several countries.
Fisher: Issues surrounding the use of drones include endurance, payload capability as well as being able to track accurately, safely and quietly especially if drones are being used to deliver to low-rise housing. Interestingly, drones might be well-used to deliver to the increasing numbers of high rise buildings, replacing a tedious journey in a lift. As we know, accurate tracking in city canyons can be tricky – how many times has Google Maps let you down in city centres! – so it’s here where autonomy will be useful.
Which industry sectors are increasingly using drones and why?
Watkins: Agriculture (especially in Australia, where the distances are vast), real estate, the police and, of course, the military. But drones are also used anywhere where monitoring is needed, which includes construction monitoring. If drones are cost-effective and provide safer services than piloted aircraft, then their use is rapidly growing. In Spain, even work on Gaudi's iconic Sagrada Familia uses drones.
And what about in the construction and design sectors?
Watson: Most of the major players are using drones for monitoring buildings, roads, railways and power lines. For road and train lines, endurance can be a problem when a significant distance needs to be monitored so fixed wing craft tend to be used. However these have longer flight times than rotary craft but cannot hover.
Fisher: We have a major project at RMIT that's looking to string up new power lines in China with large drones and lifting the initial line over new pylons. We have also looked at surveying train lines for fallen trees and or those that might fall in adverse weather conditions.
Are there any risks and challenges in using drones?
Fisher: Privacy, noise, reducing the job opportunities for humans and integrating into airspace where there are well-established air traffic control regulations. Some of our research focuses on trying to hold drones steady in very strong winds; in urban areas, winds are highly turbulent and if the eye (or hand) in the sky is to remain useful it needs to function well on windy days.
Watkins and Fisher are involved in the delivery of an upcoming RMIT Europe industry research forum on the future of drones in construction and design.
Story: Karen Matthews