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Civil Engineer blog

How drones can improve safety and productivity

21 May 2018
Drones are increasingly being used for condition surveys of infrastructure and plant. Head of digital at Balfour Beatty Victor Snook discusses how they are helping to improve both safety and productivity.
How drones can improve safety and productivity
The top 2 causes of deaths at work in the UK for the years 2016/2017 were being struck by a moving vehicle (31 fatalities) and falling from height (25 fatalities). The construction industry alone suffered 30 fatalities, which is the highest of any single industry (HSE, 2018).

Clearly the construction and infrastructure sector needs to implement innovative ideas and technologies to reduce or even remove entirely the risks to its workforce.

At Balfour Beatty we are committed to achieving ‘zero harm’ across our businesses. With the considerable health and safety risks facing construction staff while working at height – particularly when conducting condition surveys – we looked at how this risk could be reduced with the implementation of new technologies.

It resulted in introducing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles - drones -with an ability to take high definition photographs and video footage and be operated in a multitude of environments (subject to compliance with Civil Aviation Authority regulations).

Bridge and road surveys

During any construction activity conducted on busy roads the interaction of workers and traffic always adds additional risk. The introduction of drones to survey the condition of infrastructure items such as carriageways and bridges has brought many benefits.

In addition to causing less disruption to traffic, the use of survey drones has resulted in inspections being carried out in much shorter timescales and importantly, much more safely as the necessity for a human presence is minimised.

With a skilled drone pilot the images obtained are highly detailed and provide a valuable source of data for both pre- and post-condition surveys. Having this level of information also enables a better understanding of the work, particularly where access is difficult to achieve. Further risk is removed when drones are used over water.

Inspecting plant at height

The use of drones has also been extended to checking the condition of large construction plant such as cranes and piling rigs. The photograph shows the cat head and mast of a Casagrande B360 piling rig taken while the rig operator was on a break. The drone pictures allow nuts and pins to be checked as well as the general condition of the plant.

Advantages of using use of drones to inspect plant includes the ability to inspect cranes and rigs during downtime without the need to lower them to ground level. In the space of approximately 10 minutes sufficient pictures can be taken along a crane jib or cat head to carry out an inspection and each picture can be zoomed to check detail.

No work at height is required and a library of photographs for rig inspections can be assembled to indicate deterioration.

Victor expands on this blog in this month’s ICE flagship journal Civil Engineering.