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drone flying over jobsite

Using Drones to Manage Your Jobsite from 300 Feet in the Air

Here are four key ways a drone might come in handy on your next project.

2018 is the year drone use will take off for real among building contractors, predicts Helge Jacobsen, United Rentals’ vice president for operations excellence and general manager of the company’s Advanced Solutions Group. 

Are you wondering how you might use one to boost safety and efficiency on your next large project? Here are four key ways a drone might come in handy.


At the beginning of a project, contractors typically use survey teams to provide an accurate reading of the site’s topography. Depending on the size of the site, that process might take weeks. “Using drones, however, you can get a survey-grade view of a site almost immediately — at the click of a button — for about one-tenth of the cost,” said Jacobsen.

Once site work begins, images from drone flyovers can provide information on the depth of a hole or trench or the height of a dirt pile. They give project managers an overall view of the site so they can be sure they have created the required topography.

“Today that is an incredibly expensive and manual process because surveyors have to be constantly on site tracking that progress. It’s also somewhat dangerous, because the surveyors are working around the machines that are on the ground. With a drone, we can do that same work with no safety risk and at a fraction of the cost,” said Jacobsen.

Progress reporting

“With drones, we can take films or stills of the site in a fixed geographic pattern and at a fixed time, like every Monday. We have the analytics to track the changes over time, and you can use that change detection to compare it against the project plans in Autodesk or CAD.”

Drone images provide a very precise measurement of where a project is compared to where it should be, Helge added. “I think that once owners get the sense of what’s possible with drones, they are going to want that level of objectivity on actual progress measured against the plan.”

“I think that once owners get the sense of what’s possible with drones, they are going to want that level of objectivity on actual progress measured against the plan.”
Helge Jacobsen, United Rentals GM of Advanced Solutions

Materials management

Materials management is easier when can you see from aerial images exactly where materials are on site at a given point in time. On large jobsites, drones might fly over the site twice a week to keep track of them.

The road structure used to bring materials onto the site also changes over time, and optimizing that structure can be challenging. Drone imagery can help there, too.


As the job progresses, project managers can use drones to perform quality inspections. For example, the inspection of an elevator shaft requires the erection of scaffolding, and a person must crawl up and down that scaffolding to check the space. “But we can fly drones up and down that shaft, and it takes just 15 minutes or so to do that inspection,” said Jacobsen. Using the drone also eliminates the safety risks involved in setting up scaffolding and having a person working at height.

As drone-based inspections become more common on job sites, drone capabilities are also beginning to see adoption in more complex environments, such as bridge and tower inspections, where the safety aspect is even more compelling.

Of course, many contractors aren’t yet deeply familiar with the what, why and how of drone use. If they have a drone plan in place and are doing flyovers, analyzing the data the drone produces is the next big hurdle. “You end up with hundreds of gigabytes of data if you do it yourself,” said Jacobsen. Services like United Rentals’ can help companies make the best use of a drone.

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

Image : Andy Dean Photography /

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