McCarthy Building Companies’ launches, tests, and expands an in-house UAV program from one drone to twenty in less than a year
Crawl. Walk. Run. It’s a proven method of business success, but does it hold up in today’s frenzied climate of commercial drones? After all, relaxed FAA Part 107 regulations opened up the proverbial floodgates for growth in the UAV industry. For a construction company looking to add drones to its operations toolbox, it’s easy to get caught up in an “act now or be left behind” mindset and move straight into “run” mode. But as the story of McCarthy Building Companies illustrates, taking the time upfront to plan, test and prove value is crucial to the success of any enterprise drone program.
Large construction companies like McCarthy are increasingly using drone maps and models to streamline and enhance workflows on complex projects, often saving thousands of dollars in man hours along the way. But building an enterprise drone program involves its own unique set of challenges. Standardizing training and protocols, overseeing safety and ensuring confidentiality all becomes more complex when working with drones on a larger scale.
In late 2016, McCarthy Building Companies rose to meet these challenges, implementing an enterprise drone program that grew from a single drone to a fleet of twenty in just shy of a year. They plan to expand even further in the coming months. This success is thanks in large part to their innovative Drone Champion Program — a company-wide taskforce that carefully thought through every aspect of integrating drones into the company’s jobsites. As they head into the fourth quarter, the construction giant continues to find new and innovative ways for using drones to improve efficiency, communications, and data analysis on complex building projects.
Ryan Moret discusses how McCarthy Building Companies developed a thriving enterprise drone program and the carefully planned approach that led to its success.
Ryan Moret is Field Solutions Manager at McCarthy Building Companies and has been with the organization since 2009. As one of the largest domestic builders in the US, with regional offices in sixteen cities, McCarthy specializes in large, complex construction projects for the healthcare and education sectors, renewable energy, and more. The company’s field solutions, BIM, survey, risk management, and solar teams all leverage drone maps and models in their work.
If you attended our Drones in Construction webinar series this past spring, you heard Ryan talk about the process he and other McCarthy staff underwent to launch the company’s enterprise drone program. We asked him to expand on that story here and discuss the role of drone data on McCarthy jobsites.
Laying the Foundation for a Successful Enterprise-Level Drone Program
When Ryan and his colleagues at McCarthy set out to develop a drone program, they knew it wasn’t as simple as purchasing a single UAV and getting started. Flying a single drone is one thing, but scaling that operation across the entire country is quite another. “We didn’t want individual jobsites to go out to the local hobby shop,” Ryan says, “pick up a phantom 4, and go fly it out there without the proper licensing, insurance and training.”
To avoid growing pains as the company’s drone fleet expands over time, they needed to be thoughtful and systematic, thinking through the logistics from all angles.
“Putting any new technology into place can be a lot of work, especially when it’s something like drones that often have safety concerns, privacy concerns…It was something we had to come at very tactfully.” — Ryan Moret, Field Solutions Manager at McCarthy Building Companies
They also understood the importance of relying on expertise from all levels of the company. To this end, they created the Drone Champion Program, a taskforce that intentionally involved at least one person from each of the company’s five divisions, as well as representatives from risk management, legal and operations. The task force spent four months laying the groundwork before the first drone ever took flight at a McCarthy jobsite.
The Drone Champion taskforce was charged with carefully thinking through all aspects of building an enterprise drone program. Initially, this involved deciding if it was even feasible to create an in-house program in the first place. According to Ryan, this wasn’t a forgone conclusion. The group explored the possibility of contracting out all drone services instead of flying in house. Ultimately, they decided an in-house program would be their best option and afford them the most flexibility and control.
But the group didn’t entirely close out the possibility of contracting out drone services on a case-by-case basis. To plan for this possibility, the Drone Champion taskforce created a contract template and a list of insurance requirements for drone service contractors. This thorough, plan-ahead approach allows McCarthy’s drone program to remain agile, able to meet the varied needs of each individual project. Today, the company occasionally hires third-party drone services when it isn’t feasible for onsite staff to gather drone data themselves.
That being said, most McCarthy projects choose to fly their own drones. The ease of using drone software programs like DroneDeploy allows staff to gather drone data during the course of a normal workday and incorporate that data into existing workflows, using industry software like Autodesk, and Box and Skyward. DroneDeploy’s App Market allows them to do this with ease, connecting drone maps to many top industry solutions from directly within the DroneDeploy dashboard.
To help McCarthy staff mobilize drones on their jobsites, the Drone Champion taskforce developed a comprehensive set of operations policies and safety protocols, as well as an ongoing staff training program. The took a close look at Part 107 regulations, then consulted with their insurance representatives, legal team and risk management. By including representatives from across the company on the task force, they are able to draw on a wide range of expertise and help ensure all angles are considered before sending a drone onto a jobsite.
Even now, a year later, the taskforce continues to play a vital role in the company’s UAV program. When a new project comes online, a representative helps staff through the process of choosing a drone, evaluating any site-specific safety concerns and providing ongoing training around hardware and software. All of this behind-the-scenes work helps projects maximize the effectiveness of their drone data, all the while maintaining jobsite safety and the integrity of critical operations.
Tackling Complex Projects With the Help of Drone Data
So how does McCarthy staff use drone data to improve the day-to-day workflows on their jobsites? “We handle very complex projects,” Ryan says of McCarthy’s construction portfolio. “They are large and they have a lot of moving parts.” From start to finish, drone data streamlines these complex processes.
Standardized data capture
As routine practice, McCarthy projects map their jobsites each week through a series of three drone flights: a standard mapping flight; a manual flight to capture the additional orbitals needed for 3D models; and a fly through video, which is a favorite of the company’s marketing team. The entire process takes less than twenty minutes.
DroneDeploy’s automated, repeatable flight plans allow site staff to create a consistent set of data week over week. This automation is also useful from a risk management standpoint.
“We like using the automated systems because it opens up less opportunity for risk. I know the tower cranes aren’t going to get any taller. I know the buildings aren’t going to get any taller than the tower cranes. So with relative confidence I can walk out every week and do all three flights on the same SD card…send it to DroneDeploy for processing and have data back in a few hours.” -Ryan Moret, McCarthy Building Companies
To help analyze their drone data on the fly, McCarthy staff uses DroneDeploy’s native analysis tools, like volume and area measurements. “For what we’re doing on a commercial site, the measurement tools are killer,” says Ryan. “I can tell how many square feet of roof we’ve put down, how much square footage of concrete is left to pour. We can measure the volume of a topsoil stockpile. If we’re trying to figure out truck access, we can measure the width of a road or gate or how much room we need to clear out for material to make the site clean and organized.”
For more complex analysis, staff integrates drone data into their existing workflows. “We can export any data we see in DroneDeploy into industry software,” Ryan points out. This includes exporting data into the Autodesk suite to manipulate and change images, conducting visualizations using obj. files for more robust workflows, and easily integrating everything into Box for improved project management.
Complex workflows aside, Ryan says one of the greatest benefits of drone software is the way it helps McCarthy’s large teams share information with ease. Drone maps and models, along with annotations and analysis, are easily shared with internal and external stakeholders.
“At the end of the day, we’re coordinators and communicators,” says Ryan. “We pull a lot of people together to try to build very complex jobs, and we can’t do it alone. We want the best product for our clients at the end of the day, so communication and collaboration are very important to us.”
McCarthy’s Map Wall Improves Communication and Coordination with Drone Imagery
From fly-through videos, to shareable maps and models, there are many ways drones improve communication on McCarthy projects. But if you really want to get a sense of the difference drones make on a construction jobsite, look no further than McCarthy’s “famous map wall.”
Despite the many high-tech ways McCarthy teams use drone data, “paper is still the common denominator for jobsites,” Ryan says. On every McCarthy site, the wall of the job trailer is covered with weekly drone maps posted in sequence, giving anyone who walks into the room a clear picture of the project’s progress over time, as well as a snapshot of any current issues on the site.
“The trades love it, being able to walk up to the wall and see nine weeks of construction photos. They pull these up in every sub meeting, every owner meeting. We have data from that week to show contractors, ‘Hey, the site’s a mess, you guys need to go clean it up.’ You can see rebar spread out all over the place, so there’s no arguing. They see it for what it’s worth.” — Ryan Moret of McCarthy Building Companies’ drone map wall.
When a higher-tech solution is in order, Ryan’s colleagues overlay design documents with a drone map using industry software like Bluebeam, creating a simple and effective way to explain production issues to owners.
“Not all of our owners speak construction,” Ryan points out. “So they walk out and they just see a mess of concrete and material and they’re not sure what we’re doing. So it helps to take the paper documents they’re used to seeing, the design documents they’re used to seeing, and show them what we’re working on and why we need what we need.”
“Drone maps and models,” says Ryan, “bring the planned world into the real world and make it easier for people to digest.”
The Future of McCarthy’s Enterprise Drone Program
So where does McCarthy’s drone program go from here? In short: they crawled, they walked and now it’s time to run. Given the success of their drone program so far, the company intends to expand to a fleet of thirty drones by the end of the year. They are also expanding the ways in which they use drone data.
Since we last spoke to Ryan at the March webinar, McCarthy’s Dallas team has begun using DroneDeploy for stockpile analysis, and the St. Louis team is using it for earthwork tracking. So far, the results are positive and the teams are pleased with the accuracy of the results. Their latest experimental project includes leveraging drone data on solar sites by using infrared imaging for testing building enclosures. This project is still in the early stages, but Ryan is confident it will produce a strong return on investment.
“Over the past year, we’ve demonstrated the difference drones make on complex construction sites,” Ryan says. “Now that we have a solid foundation, we’re excited to see what’s next. No doubt, we’ll continue to find new ways to use drones in the months and years to come.”
Where to Learn More
- If you’d like to learn more about how drones can make a difference on your construction project, watch our Drones in Construction webinar, Part 1 and Part 2 (featuring Ryan), and Part 3.
- Looking for an all-inclusive construction mapping package? DroneDeploy recently partnered with DJI to develop a turnkey drone mapping solution for the construction industry.
- Learn more about comparing design plans and drone maps with our new overlay tool.
- Find out how drones are improving safety on commercial jobsites in our recent blog post.
- Once you’re ready to get started, our construction onboarding is a great place to begin.
Get Started with DroneDeploy
Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.
Proving the Value of Enterprise Drone Programs in Construction was originally published in DroneDeploy’s Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.