November 11, 2016      

If you haven’t heard by now, 3D Robotics (3DR) has shifted its focus to commercial drones. The company had to realign itself after sales of the Solo drone didn’t go according to plan. Forbes has a sobering account that details what happened.

In March 2016, 3DR partnered with Autodesk to launch its Site Scan aerial analytics platform that uses a drone, which has the Solo chassis, for agriculture, construction, insurance, public safety, surveying and telecom applications.

Site Scan can now be used as a Building Information Modeling (BIM) tool to “digitize the construction site” and help keep projects on budget and on schedule by, hopefully, making it easier to compare the site as built versus as designed throughout the process. This allows construction crews to catch mistakes – pipes or trenches dug incorrectly, for example – early and go back into the CAD model to make changes before they increase in cost to fix.

The BIM capabilities also allow construction teams to measure the amount of raw material, such as sand, left at a plant or available for a job. During a press briefing this week, one 3DR employee called Site Scan “augmented reality for the construction site.”

Here’s how Site Scan works. You program a flight path for the drone to follow, and it automatically surveys that area and lands where it took off. While in the air, the drone takes a bunch of photos of the survey area, sends those photos to the cloud, and creates a 3D model of that site. The 3D imagery is then overlaid on the original CAD designs to allow the construction team to identify problems.

According to 3DR, the average construction project runs 80 percent over budget and 20-months behind schedule. “Daily scanning allows you to spot problems as they happen so you can either fix it or, if it’s not a big deal, model it for the next guy who comes so he won’t make a mistake,” says 3DR CEO Chris Anderson.

3DR Site Scan BIMThree examples of problems identified by Site Scan and fixed early on in the construction process. (Credit: 3DR)

During the press briefing, a reporter asked Anderson what makes Site Scan different than Drone Deploy and Kespry, two companies that offer similar solutions. “The big selling point is our integration with Autodesk,” Anderson says. “Just having a drone that takes imagery isn’t that cool. Integration with Autodesk’s workflow is the cool part.”

Anderson was also asked if Site Scan is a “hailmary” for the company. He downplayed that, of course, saying 3DR always wanted to be an enterprise-focused company.

“As the FAA has been working on regulations, drone companies have been moving from the hardware side of things to the software side of things,” Anderson says. “You need to go through the consumer phase to get to the enterprise phase; to build the technology and have those drones ready for when they can be used as a tool and not just a toy.”

3DR is already working with PCL Construction, which is the 8th largest contractor in the US and the largest in Canada, according to Engineering News Record (ENR) magazine. Bill Bennington, virtual construction manager for PCL’s Orlando district and a licensed drone pilot, started using Site Scan in mid-October. He uses Site Scan about twice a week to collect aerial images. Orlando is a test pilot to see how Site Scan could be rolled out to PCL’s 32 offices across North America.

“Take a 400-acre construction site. There’s a buzz of activity happening everywhere,” Bennington says. “With our old process, we would systematically go through and check that everything is happening in the right spot at the right time and aligning with the original design. To quickly capture an overview from the air we can quickly get a feel that everything’s on track or that this area might have an issue and we can control our ground game better.”

Perhaps the key to Site Scan’s success is educating the construction industry about the benefits of using drones. When they hear the word “drone,” many construction companies have visions of drones flying through the air crashing into things. That, of course, isn’t the case, but it’s the perception many have.

“The more we can educate construction companies about the controllable, repeatable process drones offer, it comforts them a bit and helps them understand what to expect.”

Bidding strategies are also vital to a construction company’s success. If a construction company that uses Site Scan submits a more expensive bid for a job, it’s important they spell out the benefits of the commercial drone platform. At the end of the day, if a client doesn’t understand what Site Scan can do for them, it might be hard for to off-set a major cost difference.

So while education and competition are the main challenges for 3DR Site Scan, construction is an $8 trillion industry and the worldwide commercial drone market is expected to rise from about $2 billion in 2016 to $127 billion by 2020. 3DR should have plenty of opportunity to prove Site Scan’s worth and erase the memories of the stranglehold it once had on North America’s consumer drone market.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated 3DR abandoned the hardware and consumer markets. However, 3DR’s existing consumer-grade drones are still available at select retailers. 3DR is also building new commercial drones with the Solo chassis combined with additional enterprise hardware specs.