Drones are revolutionizing the construction industry, helping building firms cut costs, save time, minimize risks, ensure accuracy, improve communication, and work more efficiently. In fact, drones can improve construction at every phase of the project lifecycle, from preconstruction mapping to worksite inspections to promotional photography1. The rapid growth of drones in construction – a spike of 239% from 2017 to 20182 – means that building companies and equipment managers need to know what to consider when making a drone purchase. That’s why we’re breaking down 9 things to look for when buying a construction drone:
1. Rotor or Fixed Wing: Drones typically take off and maneuver via a collection of helicopter-like rotary blades, or by fixed wings than operate like an airplane.
Fixed wing drones can fly higher, further, and faster than rotor drones, have greater stability, and are less likely to incur damage if they crash, since wings allow them to glide to the ground in the event of mechanical failure3. These benefits make fixed wing drones ideal for mapping topography or surveying larger tracts of land4. However, fixed wing drones are more expensive, are harder to operate (especially in busy or crowded areas), and require space for a take-off/landing runway strip – plus you have to keep them within eyesight, per federal regulations, so you don’t really get to use their distance-traveling potential to its fullest5.
Rotor drones have greater maneuverability, lower cost, compact size, simpler ease-of-use, and higher payload capacity – and because they have vertical take-offs and landings, you don’t need space for a runway strip3. Rotor drones’ ability to hover in a single place makes them ideal for closer inspections, measurements, and photography4. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that rotor drones can only operate over a shorter range, are less stable in the wind, and more likely to incur damage if they crash, since mechanical failure most likely means they drop right to the ground.
(You may also consider tethered rotor drones, which are not limited by battery life, as their connection to a grounded power source allows them to operate indefinitely, but are constrained by significantly decreased mobility due to the tether6.)
2. Camera Quality: From on-site measurements to workforce monitoring to structural inspections to security surveillance to marketing materials, drone video and photography is a massive benefit to construction firms, making camera quality a necessity. To make sure you get high-quality images that provide greater details and potentially help generate 3D renderings, be sure your camera has, at minimum, a 24mm focal length – we recommend going for 35mm7. Similarly, your camera should have at least a 10 megapixel count, if not 20MP or higher5. For true cinematic quality, your camera should be able to shoot video at 1080p, and you may consider a drone with a Gimbal stabilizer, which decreases shakiness in your footage5.
Additionally, if you want to avoid the considerable time it takes to manually determine the exact positioning of your images – which involves going through hundreds or thousands of pictures and matching their timestamps to the drone GPS data history – simply acquire a drone that automatically inserts geolocation tags into each image5. That should be a no-brainer for any firm looking to buy a drone.
3. Payload & Modularity: The weight a drone is able to carry is an essential consideration if you are interested in adding attachments to your drone for worksite and structural inspections, such as infrared, LIDAR, or thermal sensors (this is why it’s a good idea to settle on your desired equipment because actually picking the drone itself)6. Using drone attachments also requires a drone with a modular payload design that allows you to swap out parts5. The ability to adapt your drone, by adding inertial motion units for example, additionally lets you fly in various flying conditions.
4. Technology Level: The fast pace of innovation generally means you’ll want to purchase a new drone – instead of a used model – to ensure it works with existing software. While construction does require a more advanced and reliable craft than simple hobby drones, you rarely need the latest, most expensive model from an emerging start-up company. We recommend going with professional brands and models that are well-known for being reliable. In the meantime, the speed of technological development means that cutting-edge, hyped-up models are likely to fall in price relatively quickly5, so you can potentially get them later, for a cheaper price, and with the benefit of more consumer-reviews.
5. Portability: Some drones are one set size no matter what, while others can be partially disassembled or folded to take on a more compact form. You’ll have to decide what size is best for you, especially if you are going to be transporting the drone frequently between different worksites, as the large size of some construction drones may be too inconvenient to be worth the hassle. A drone typically doesn’t need to be any more than 6-8 pounds, and any construction drone bigger than 20” x 20” will not be easily portable5.
6. Durability & Likelihood of Loss: It is likely your drone will crash at some point, especially if you are an inexperienced drone pilot, which is why beginner drone operators should purchase drones they can afford to lose. If you sink a fortune into your first drone, you may be afraid to use it, making it a pretty ineffective construction tool. It could be best for your first drone to be a cheaper, introductory aircraft, with the understanding that once you are comfortable with the technology (and are crashing less), a more advanced drone will serve you much more effectively. At the same time, keep in mind that your worksite will also have dust, debris, and other rough conditions, so any drone you buy – from your first drone to your last – should be tough and durable enough to maintain a regular on-site workload5.
7. Spare Parts & Batteries: Your drone will crash. Batteries will not last forever. Knowing these facts should guide your purchasing decisions. It’s best to buy models from local stores that can guarantee fast repairs and replacements7, and provide ample spare parts for DIY repairs, which helps you ensure your operations are not unnecessarily interrupted if the drone takes on any damage. Similarly, be sure you stock up on multiple batteries, or – if you’re willing to pay higher up-front costs – purchase a drone equipped with longer-lasting batteries, which can help keep your drone in the air longer6.
8. Drone Insurance: Knowing that the major risk to drones is crashing, you may want to consider if your model is eligible for drone insurance8. This protects you from incurring the full cost of a lost drone, and also can give you financial protection if your drone happens to damage people or property when it crash-lands. At a minimum, you should consider purchasing the manufacturer warranties for your drone and relevant equipment like cameras and sensors.
9. Remain Flexible: Don’t get locked in to a single brand or model of construction drone, but consider – over time – acquiring a fleet with different capabilities3. There are so many variations out there that could benefit your worksite, and so many new updates and models that you don’t want to miss out on. If you can only afford one drone to start, try to buy one that is equipped for multiple applications.
By first identifying your needs and preferences, you should be able to determine which drone may be best for you when you begin searching the market. We hope this article has provided a helpful guide to assist you when looking to buy a construction drone. And stay tuned to the blog where an upcoming article will provide our tips and tricks for operating construction drones among the dump trucks and compactors on your worksite. In the meantime, we want to hear from you – do you have any tips for buying construction drones? Let us know in the comments below.
About the Author
Ethan is a Content Curator for Trader Interactive, serving the commercial brands Commercial Truck Trader, Commercial Web Services, and Equipment Trader. Ethan believes in using accessible language to elevate conversations about industry topics relevant to commercial dealers and their buyers.