Send in the drones

Health and safety, disputes, disruption and efficiencies in the construction industry. By William Gard and Ann Metherall

Over the past few years, technological advances have given rise to opportunities for autonomous and unmanned vehicles in the construction industry, including for site surveys and monitoring during construction. These opportunities are only going to increase as the technology continues to progress and innovative uses of drones are developed. The site data that drones are able to collate could prove a valuable tool in reducing disputes on construction, reducing disruption and improving the efficiency and safety of construction projects. We explore some of these themes in further detail.

What impact will drones have in the construction sector?
PwC expects an £8.6 billion uplift in GDP in the construction and manufacturing sectors by 2030 due to the incorporation of drones in commercial activities and count drones as one of PwC’s (Essential Eight) technologies that matter most for business over the next three to five years. Key predicted themes for the sector include more efficient and accurate surveys on construction sites, improved data collection which can be integrated with the Building Information Modelling (BIM) system, and a potential reduction in disputes and disagreements relating to project status or progress. These efficiency and productivity gains attributable to the impact of drones are estimated to contribute to an overall £42 billion uplift to the UK economy by 2030. In addition, this nascent technology benefits ancillary areas such as integrated technology and building design, including protecting against misuse. The London US Embassy’s installation of a ‘Faraday cage’ that protects against electronic surveillance is a case in point.

Dispute resolution
One of the possible benefits of drones is the use of the data and records gathered by drones in the event of disputes. Disputes relating to work progression, extensions of time and delay are common on construction projects. Sourcing an accurate record of activities carried out and progress of the works after the event is a common problem, but also often the key to unlocking such disputes. Where the necessary records are unavailable or incomplete, disputes can become more involved, expensive and time consuming to resolve, with each party employing their own experts to interpret the data available, which often leads to conflicting conclusions.

The use of periodic drone flights throughout a project to record work status and exact measurements could be invaluable in such a situation, particularly where both parties buy into, and agree on drone use at the outset of a project (including the frequency of the surveys, the data to be gathered etc). Where such records are created, it will be harder for the parties to dispute these down the line – this could, in many cases, help avoid disputes in the first place.

Parties could proactively use those records as a common factual starting point from which, for example, assessments of extensions of time could be made. If a dispute cannot be avoided, the records from the drone may at least reduce the scope for conflicting accounts of progress or status, and would provide key evidence for tribunals when deciding such disputes.

Site monitoring
The use of drones in site and asset monitoring is becoming more established in the construction and wider infrastructure sectors and presents another opportunity for significant productivity increases. Drones are capable of undertaking site surveys significantly faster, more efficiently and with far greater precision than many existing standard procedures. The data captured by drones can also be integrated with BIM technologies to assist in the development of BIM models more accurately and efficiently.

Health and safety
Health and safety legislation effectively requires duty holders to look for continuous improvements. As drone and mapping technology, such as Lidar and photogrammetry, becomes readily available and reliable, so it seems likely that the HSE will expect to see it used to reduce risks to safety of those working in construction. Potentially drones and the associated technology can reduce the need for personnel to work in areas of high risk such as at height and in confined spaces. The technology that allows drones to be used for surveys and monitoring is well developed. The technology that will allow more sophisticated use of unmanned vehicles to carry out physical work is also advancing.

Given falls from a height were the number one cause of industrial fatalities in Great Britain from 2013-2018, it is likely that during investigations the HSE will soon start asking questions about why a drone has not been used as an alternative to sending someone to work at height.

Challenges and regulation
Understandably, there are still 7challenges to be smoothed over including in relation to privacy, safety, misuse and the speed of technological advance. Although commercial regulation is now relatively well established, with frameworks in place dealing with training, licences, permissions and registration, those engaging drone operators would be advised to ensure that valid insurances and registrations are in place, as required by the Civil Aviation Authority.

In contrast, regulation on recreational and unauthorised drone use has struggled to keep pace, as drone disruption at Gatwick airport in December 2018 brought into stark relief. The government has committed to update the regulatory landscape, bolstering police powers and transparency through the Drones (Regulation) Bill. Further advances in e.g. air traffic management and use beyond line of sight would encourage the technology to reach its potential in both commercial and recreational spheres, and especially in urban environments.

Despite the technology still being in its infancy, the construction industry is already clearly benefiting from the use of drones and there are significant further benefits to be realised as the technology and regulatory landscape continue to progress.

William Gard and Ann Metherall are Heads of the Construction & Engineering and Health & Safety teams respectively at independent UK law firm Burges Salmon. Burges Salmon is the independent UK law firm which delivers the best mix of advice, service and value. By focusing on the markets and areas of expertise where it has extensive knowledge and experience, it achieves the best outcomes for clients.

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