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How PCL Construction Built a Successful Drone Program

Two years ago, the Orlando, Florida division of PCL Construction wasn’t flying drones on any of their projects. Their virtual construction team set out to change that. “We needed to capture our projects in detail,” said André Tousignant, Virtual Construction Manager at PCL. “We knew that drones could help.”

André and his colleague Bill Bennington built their drone program from the ground up in Orlando, capturing aerial data on a number of their projects. Fast forward to today, and PCL Construction has expanded their drone program beyond just Orlando to have a team of 26 pilots flying drones in multiple districts across North America, with nearly 50 people using their drone data on a daily basis. It’s had a big impact, helping PCL better collaborate between the office and the field, avoid costly disputes and mistakes, and keep projects on schedule.

We spoke with André to dive deeper into why they started looking for a drone solution, how he got the rest of his team actively using drone data, and how it’s helped on their projects so far.

 


 

Hugh: What were the original pain points you faced that made you and your team look for a drone solution? Why did you originally want to bring a drone in-house?

André: On construction projects, documentation is key. You can never have enough photos. We needed to capture our projects in detail, and we’ve used laser scanners and other ways of taking pictures, but we started looking for a drone solution so we can gather information on the whole site.

We quickly realized that a cloud-based drone platform could help us do more than just turn drone photos into orthomosaics and 3D models: they’re enterprise-ready tools that we could use to share this data with all of our teams. That sort of opportunity is what really sold us on bringing a drone solution in-house. Really, if you compare the cost to what you actually get—and the speed you can get it—it’s an easy decision.

Hugh: What are some of the biggest ‘wins’ you’ve had using your drone data? What are some that you didn’t expect?

André: There’s been a few! A recent one was on a large commercial structure that we’re building. One of the first times we flew the site, we were just starting to excavate some of our foundations. As soon as we processed our flight into an orthomosaic, we overlaid our design file onto the map to spot the difference between design and reality. We immediately realized the excavation was probably about 3 feet off, so we moved quickly and fixed it before it became an issue.

Digital elevation model viewer with design file overlay

The second example is something that we didn’t originally expect when starting to use our drone. A question arose on one of our projects about the amount of de-watering that had been installed. It wasn’t clear how many PVC pipes were actually placed, compared to the initial plan.

Often photo documentation of this type of scope is sparse and it would prove difficult to know the right answer. But thankfully, on this project, we had the drone imagery. We used Site Scan to count every 2-inch diameter pipe to see exactly how many were there, and it helped us resolve a potentially costly dispute.

What it comes down to is that you can’t argue with the data. As soon as we review and share the documentation captured by the drone, it puts these types of issues to bed immediately.

“What it comes down to is that you can’t argue with the data. As soon as we review and share the documentation captured by the drone, it puts these types of issues to bed immediately.”

Hugh: You led scaling PCL’s drone operations from a single user license to over 100 users across different projects and teams. How did you do that successfully? Who is using the data today?

André: Here’s the first thing we did: show people what they can actually do with drone data, and how easy the workflow is. It sounds simple, but it’s a critical thing to do.

I brought together project teams—project managers, project engineers, superintendents, and more—and showed them an example of how drone imagery is being used on other projects. Then, I showed them the different use cases and simple tools that are available to them, such as overlaying a PDF design file onto an orthomosaic, comparing flights, performing volume and area measurements, and more. Their eyes lit up, and the lightbulb went off. They said things like, “Hey, this is something we can use! We can do measurements. We can do a cross-section of the point cloud and see the elevation. We can share it with our teams.”

Comparing jobsite changes over time

With this initial positive feedback, we worked to standardize drone operations on all of our projects. For example, we’re expanding the number of drone pilots to more teams. A key part of this, when scaling into the enterprise, is maintaining consistency. We ensure that we’re effective recordkeepers and can plan flights properly. We have digital checklists that our pilots use every time before taking off, to ensure they fly safely and effectively. Also, all of our flights are logged in Site Scan, so it’s easy if someone else sets up a flight and completes it, then I can go out and re-fly that flight quickly. This ensures we have consistent flights that cover the same area, capturing the right overlap, and getting an expected result out of the [photogrammetry] processing.

Our team uses the drone data in a variety of ways. For example, it’s become an important part of coordination meetings, where our team talks through site logistics, reviews progress, plan work with subs, and more. They’re pulling that information up in Site Scan, in the browser, and reviewing it. It’s important to note that this data is usually from the previous day, which is great considering how quickly these sites can change.

“[Drone data] has become an important part of coordination meetings, where our team talks through site logistics, reviews progress, plan work with subs, and more.”

In addition to our project teams, we’re also give access to some of our owners so they can see progress on the job and see how it’s changing. We also give access to some consultants on other teams, as they may be interested in learning different things than we are.

Hugh: You work with new technologies everyday, not just drones. What new construction technologies are you excited about?

André: I’m excited about a few things. First, the impact of neural network software to further process and document models from our flights. I think that will have a huge impact.

I’m a fan of tech that can touch every project in a significant way. For example, look at what StructionSite has done. It makes it easy for us to document our jobs and manage the photos we take. By integrating StructionSite with other storage apps, we’re simplifying how we store and find images.

Overall, I’m glad to see more horizontal integrations between platforms. This helps us avoid having data silos, and ensures that our field staff can get the information they need, whenever they need it.

“Overall, I’m glad to see more horizontal integrations between platforms. This helps us avoid having data silos, and ensures that our field staff can get the information they need, whenever they need it.”

Hugh: You and your team at PCL have built a great drone program: you’re getting a ton of value out of the data and have scaled drone operations to more teams and locations. Now that you have this foundation, where do you want to take your drone operations next? What are you excited about what it comes to the future of drone technology?

André: First, I’m excited about where things are going with [Site Scan’s] BIM 360 integration. We’re big users of BIM 360 Field and Glue here at PCL—almost every single one of our projects uses BIM 360 Field. Site Scan’s integration with BIM 360 is exciting for a few reasons: it helps us overlay up-to-date design files onto our orthomosaics, create Issues and RFI’s to solve problems in the field, and it makes it easy for us to bring drone data into our design models, and not just look at them in 2D.

On a similar note, I’m excited about how easy 3D modelling has become. When the 3D mesh viewer was released, for example, our team couldn’t believe the type of model that could be created from a 10-minute drone flight. The detail is incredible. You can read our logo on the trucks!

André and his team getting ready to fly

We’re also starting to explore new use cases for drones, like making it more efficient to do pre-pour documentation of conduits and post-tensioning, among other things. In some of the initial experiments we’ve done with a drone, we’ve turned an hour of documentation work in the field down to just 15 minutes, and improved our processing times as well.

Also, we’re excited to see where the FAA regulation goes. For example, the evolution of LAANC is really exciting, because it’s opening up airspace and making it easier to fly in areas that took longer to get approval in before.

Lastly, and importantly, I’m excited about what’s possible within PCL. Every day, we on the VDC team hear about a teammate who is using the drone data in a different way. This is exactly what we want when introducing a new technology. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing project teams use the data in a way that we never intended, and I’m excited to see where we take things next.

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