Automated Drones, Ground Robots for Reality Capture

On the second day of the DroneDeploy conference in Denver, an enterprise panel discussed what automation means on the jobsite – capturing data with automated drones, ground robots, and more.
This year’s DroneDeploy conference has been exciting – not only is the company announcing a slew of new features, they’ve honed in on the value that drones – both aerial and ground based – can provide for enterprise customers.  For the drone industry, it’s a welcome progression from “it’s not the drone, it’s the data” to the general understanding that the data needs to offer practical and concrete use that makes life easier, not more complicated, for professionals.
On the floor, the talk among attendees is not just about data, it’s about reality capture – the distinction being that reality capture is about using multiple technologies to record a physical space in digital form.  Once you have captured a space in digital form, you can share it with remote personnel; apply AI-powered algorithms to extract useful information; track changes over time; and use it to answer specific questions.  At this morning’s keynote, Tyler Hollen, the Director of Construction Technology at Wadman Corporation and Christopher McKee, Reality Capture Manager at Turner Construction, talked with technology providers from DroneDeploy, DJI and Boston Dynamics about how they’re using automated drones (both aerial, with DJI’s drone dock; and ground-based, with Boston Dynamics’ Spot) for reality capture.

Hollen points out that reality capture has gone through phases: from a first stage of walking around with a digital camera and uploading those files, to a second stage of using digital automation to put that data into context and extract information, to the current stage of physical automation, where a robot collects the data and pushes it automatically into the system.
“If you look at events like the industrial revolution, there are specific technologies that have to all come together at the same time to make it happen,” said Hollen.  “In our industry, you need the robotics to be at the right stage of development to do this.”  With the release of the DJI Phantom 1 in 2013, the release of Boston Dynamics’ Spot – capable of walking up and down stairs and over obstacles – and the 2022 launch of the DJI dock, the robotic pieces for automation are in place.
“You also need the software,” said Hollen.  “You have to define the work that you want the robot to perform.  That’s DroneDeploy – we talk to the dock, we talk to the robot, and we get what is needed.  But there is more to be done.”

Hollen’s company moved to automated reality capture with the DJI drone dock in response to an increase in the number of drone flights the company was performing.  The company does pre-proposal flights of potential sites to gather all of the data that they can to present to the interview team.  That data also rolls over to the project planning phase.
After that, the team previously did monthly in-depth reality capture of the construction site while in process, as well as “at request” flights, which might take place before and after major earthwork, or before landscaping covers up piping.  With automated flights, they can easily perform more flights, more often.
“We went to the DJI dock because we had a major uptick in the requested flights,” said Hollen.  “We have had owners who saw so much value in the data that they kept asking for more.  Dock enables us to provide more value and deliver a better project.”
For Chris McKee, reality capture before automated robots meant using unicorn sensors on helmets to you walk through a site.  For their company, using Spot for regular reality capture has meant less of a burden on staff and better quality data.
McKee says that implementation of automated robotics has been a crawl, walk, run strategy.  “When we bought Spot, we had to test it: can it walk over rebar? Can it walk through water?  That was our crawling stage.”
“Then we had to figure out how to walk: how to get the data that we needed.” Their company needed both photos and scans: mounting a 360 degree camera onto Spot met their needs.
Automation software was the key to bringing their robotic reality capture program to the next level.  “When we connected Spot with DroneDeploy, we weren’t just walking – it was a full sprint,” said McKee.  “We went from figuring out what we wanted to do to doing autonomous missions within a couple of days.  Now we’re testing the limits of what’s possible.”
Hollen also points out how easy to use both the Dock and DroneDeploy’s unified platform were to implement.  “We were amazed at how easy it was – we got the dock, got it set up, and had [the drone] in the air within a couple of hours.  On install day, I got it in place, set up, flew all of my missions for that day, and was home in time for my kid’s soccer game.”
On the software side, combining ground and aerial data with automation makes the whole work of reality capture on construction sites easier.  “We’re capturing ground data with humans right now, and having [the data] all put together is great.  But the real thing is the ease of use – automation takes all of the driving, the transfer of data cards, the time – it takes all of that out of the equation.”
DroneDeploy announced a monthly lease program for Spot, packaged with the DroneDeploy software. “We’re very excited to launch this – we really want to unlock this capabiltiy for our customers,” said DroneDeploy’s Head of Ground Robotics David Inggs.
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Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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