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Is There a Future for Drones in the Construction Industry?

For some in the industry, the idea of an unmanned aircraft system delivering equipment doesn't seem that far off into the future.

Mon February 10, 2014 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Is there an unmanned delivery aircraft in the near future for construction equipment distributors and manufacturers? Probably not. For the next few years, anyway, they better plan on delivering parts in trucks and vans.

The online store giant, Amazon, stirred up airwaves in December when its CEO revealed an ongoing project to distribute books and movies via little helicopters the company dubbed “octocopters.” Designed to deliver packages weighing five pounds or less in 30 minutes, the spindle-legged hovering craft would be sent from warehouses to customers within 10 mi. of takeoff. Amazon is hoping to have the system operating in 2015.

Though they are termed futuristic, unmanned airborne deliveries are only an evolutionary step from what the aircraft are doing presently. Yet practical and regulatory barriers prevent that next step from being taken quickly.

“If I had to guess, I would say it will be another 5 to 6 years before they are allowed,” said Mark Blanks, the unmanned aircraft systems program manager at Kansas State University. KSU is one of two universities in the United States to offer a bachelor of science in unmanned aircraft systems. The program is headquartered in north central Kansas and operates from the Smoky Hills weapons range maintained by the Kansas Air National Guard.

The timetable for delivery by UAS — a common term standing for “unmanned aircraft systems” — is keyed to regulatory schedules of the Federal Aviation Administration. An arbitrary 55-lb. upper weight limit was imposed on unmanned vehicles currently being vetted by the FAA, and the rules for that segment of vehicles won’t be in place till late 2015. That is if everything goes smoothly, which is not usually the case in regulations involving public comment.

Unmanned aircraft heavier than 55 lbs. are another matter. Regulatory scrutiny of them just began in early 2013, which means the process won’t wrap up in all probability until 2019 or so. With various red flags being raised about the vehicles cluttering air space and violating individual privacy, the likelihood of larger UAS vehicles being approved by 2020 is not great.

Some Already Flying

What about the little model planes often seen flying by remote control in parks and other open spaces? They are flown legally, but are limited to short flights of a few hundred feet and remain in sight of a controller throughout a flight. While these line-of-sight recreational hobby craft are precursors of Amazon’s delivery craft, controlling the flight of a UAS over a neighboring hill or beyond the horizon is a giant leap.

Therefore, the technology currently is being used for local camera-carrying. Mounting a camera on a UAS vehicle and sending it aloft has several commercial applications. The look-down capability of the craft works well in construction, law enforcement, agriculture, and energy inspection industries. For example, tiny aircraft are being sent aloft by contractors for a bird’s-eye view of a building being erected or of an overall job site. Video and live-broadcasts can give engineers and contractors new insight on a project.

In some countries — notably Australia, which is home to vast open spaces — the unmanned aircraft are being more widely used, both in terms of area covered and applications. In the United States, however, UAS vehicles mostly buzz planted fields and construction areas using their eye-in-the-sky assets.

“Small applications are going to come first and the big ones later,” said Mike Corcoran, technical program director at the campus of the other university program in the country, the University of North Dakota. The rollout of later generation aircraft will be guided by what Corcoran believes is suitable FAA caution.

“I absolutely agree that the path the FAA is on is the right one,” he said. “Some would like to see change yesterday, but it has to be a metered approach with incremental steps. It’s a good thing to gather input and consensus in defining public policy. We certainly don’t want to make a hasty decision, especially with technology that keeps changing.

“The FAA is moving ahead and, though some would like to see it moving faster, to the minds of aviators in the country, the FAA is moving with the best understanding of the situation.”

Corcoran has been flying airplanes for 20 years and it is from the pilot’s perspective that he advances the cause of unmanned aircraft. It also is why he rather strongly objects to referring to the aircraft as “drones,” the popular term for the vehicles.

“Some people take offense at that,” he said, seemingly including himself. “Saying ’drone’ is no different than using racial slang. It is the wrong word even from a technical aspect. There is nothing unpiloted about these things: They are remotely piloted aircraft.” He added that when one of his employees at the university’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence accidentally uses what might be called the “d-word,” a contribution goes in a cookie jar.

His point is that pilots fly the aircraft, albeit from the ground, and other pilots in the air are depending on the unmanned aircraft pilots to keep the small vehicles out of their air space. A pilot’s skill set still is needed.

“I don’t foresee any time in my lifetime that you are going to not need a pilot anymore.”

Prototypes and Progress

Both of the university programs test UAS prototypes as well as more advanced aircraft, both hovering and winged versions. Some of them are U.S. Department of Defense vehicles; some are unique craft cobbled together by undergraduate students in their classroom programs. One of KSU’s aircraft is being tested further in Afghanistan by U.S. troops.

The Mideast wars have been a proving ground for unmanned aircraft, most famously by the Predator, which is employed as a surveillance and attack craft. Another automated aircraft used in Afghanistan is the Kaman K-Max double-rotored helicopter. It can lift 6,000 lbs. — more than its empty weight — and is deployed to carry materials to isolated areas of that country.

Given this experience, it seems quite feasible for automated aircraft to one day carry construction equipment parts from, say, a dealer to a distant project site. Complete engines or entire pieces of equipment also may be delivered that way. What must happen before such deliveries become commonplace is formulation of rules that will keep a helicopter with, say, a skid steer dangling underneath from popping up into the path of a Cessna on a landing approach pattern.

“We do have some of the busiest air space in the world,” said Blanks, his rural Kansas surroundings notwithstanding. The scenario everyone wants to avoid is a fatality resulting from a midair collision of a manned and unmanned aircraft.

Besides unfinished regulatory work, the technology of UAS aircraft is still incomplete. Unmanned aircraft by definition do not have human eyes, hands and reactive abilities on board. The aircraft has to rely on sensors and cameras that relay to a ground controller the craft’s position, attitude and relationship to surroundings.

“An air vehicle’s self-ability to detect another object is critical It is a challenge and complicated to get an air vehicle to do that in any and all circumstances. We have folks working on it,” said Corcoran. A similar challenge cited by the two program directors is creating communication links that work all the time over extended distances, regardless of environmental conditions. What’s more, there are only so many radio frequencies to be allocated for such communications, so new solutions must be found in that technology as well.

Given such challenges, it may be just as well that the regulatory process is methodical, with both technologies and rules maturing at the same pace.

OEM interest

The Association of Equipment Manufacturers is aware of the Amazon-induced buzz about airborne deliveries, according to Al Cervero, vice president of the construction sector. That doesn’t mean association members are generally promoting the idea.

“I would say that Amazon created a lot of question marks about air space and regulations,” Cervero said. Though manufacturers sometimes have their dealers use small aircraft to get parts and equipment to contractors, it is understood that unmanned aircraft are another ballgame.

“My guess is that our manufacturers are keeping an eye on it, but may not be ready to take the lead in it.”

Cervero pointed out that UPS and FedEx partner with manufacturers and distributors in parts deliveries. He said those delivery companies may be the ones to champion the new technology and employ it in fleets of their own on behalf of OEMs.

“The bottom line is, our manufacturers are always looking at ways to deliver products. The standard has always been next-day delivery, but they are all looking at how to deliver a manufactured part sooner. They are working with dealers and supply partners to come up with the most expeditious customer service they can.”

To illustrate that the AEM is future-looking, the association vice president pointed out that its members produce any number of automated machines. They range from unmanned material compactors that are operated in tandem with a neighboring manned compactor to huge unmanned ag grain wagons that facilitate harvests to unmanned trucks hauling material from underground mines.

“We are wide open to wild ideas,” Cervero said, because they can be the genesis for practical applications. “At our annual meetings, we try to bring in visionary speakers. A guy this last time represented a consortium that wants to mine meteorites as they pass the earth.”

And, in fact, some interest in expanding the use of unmanned aircraft already has been expressed, Cervero said, though he is cautious about sharing details. “One manufacturer has asked a number of questions about the potential for developing a drone for a particular application. We have been asked for some opinions on how to approach the research.

“At AEM, we support two things,” Cervero said. “One: anything our members want us to coordinate or research and, two, anything that will provide increased efficiency for the contractor and end-user.” The formula would not seem to preclude support for unmanned aircraft development and use.

On the Ground

Most of the focus in any UAS discussion is on the nimble little aircraft in the air. But for an unmanned aircraft to function as a delivery vehicle, guidance personnel — pilots, if you will — must be on the job, too. A manufacturer or distributor wanting to employ the technology has to be willing to employ a qualified pilot to fly the aircraft from a base station. If a fleet of airborne delivery vehicles is the goal, a stable of pilots will have to be hired.

How far and fast the guidance technology advances in the next few years will determine how much hardware and software must be purchased.

“It might not be any,” Corcoran said. “Some smaller systems that leverage a small UAS might not need anything but a laptop. These aircraft systems are designed to make life a little easier and more efficient. It would be counterproductive to ultimately build in a lot of infrastructure.”

In ambitious applications, a base might require one or more certified pilots, a work station and an antenna. Cost could range from a few thousand to a few million dollars, depending on the scale of the operation, Blanks said. The cost-effectiveness of UAS delivery over traditional road transport would be determined case by case, with airborne emergency deliveries to remote locations probably being money-savers and scheduled neighborhood deliveries not so much.

With state and federal budgets being tapped for the research and universities creating curricula to advance the technology, some public support of unmanned aircraft clearly is evident. Corcoran sees his program’s UAS research contributing to general aviation safety as well as to development of a new commercial industry.

“On a day-to-day basis around this place, we are humbled to be right in the middle of this,” Corcoran said with pride from his North Dakota research center. “This is a great story, not just a good one.”

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