How can drones transform construction processes?

William Reddaway, Innovation & Reporting Consultant at Crossrail, tells us about his team’s work exploring the use of unmanned aerial vehicles – aka drones – in construction

Drones can assist with site planning, inspections and health and safety. Photo Don McCullough.
Drones can assist with site planning, inspections and health and safety. Photo Don McCullough.
  • Updated: 09 November, 2015
  • Author: William Reddaway, Innovation & Reporting Consutant, Crossrail Ltd

In recent years, we have seen the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – also known as drones – grow rapidly across industry and society. Previously only commonly used in the military, we now see them providing footage at sporting events and concerts, and for films and advertisements. They are used in agriculture to monitor crops and animal herds, and in search and rescue for locating missing persons. Many sectors have identified ways to improve their working practices through drone use.

The construction sector is no different. Drones can assist with a range of activities including site inspection, planning and health and safety. Our team at Crossrail has worked on a project exploring current and possible future uses of drones in construction.


Crossrail’s innovation programme, Innovate18, hopes to raise the bar in the industry by creating a collaborative culture and bringing in new innovative processes and technology. Innovate18 aims to enhance cooperation between Crossrail’s many different contractors, whose common objective is not only the successful delivery a world-class railway, but one delivered safely, efficiently and sustainably.

One of Innovate18’s projects is around the use of drones in a construction environment, exploring how they can support field engineers performing site inspections, especially through automating surveys on large sites and on sites with restricted access.

We put together a “drone team” consisting of media, field engineering, innovation and health and safety professionals. All team members were trained to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) standards for operating UAVs safely and we created an operations manual and a safe method of working.

How can drones assist with construction practices?

Drones are already in regular use at Crossrail. Our team visited several of the project sites to understand the activities they are supporting:

  • Site inspections – close examination of high risk areas, and speedy overviews of large sites, freeing up time for other tasks
  • H&S Induction – site plans can be quickly and efficiently updated to show where different works are taking place (such as lifts and excavations), ensuring that operatives stay safe
  • Crane/tower/scaffolding inspections – much easier method of inspecting high-up structures, providing real time footage to spot anomalies. Reduces site downtime and mitigates risks of personnel having to work at height
  • Site planning – overviews can be obtained quickly to inform planning sessions
  • 360° panoramas – a more immersive experience to enhance appreciation of potential hazards and site orientation

Our site teams have identified a number of other potential uses, which we are hoping to trial and measure:

  • Logistics planning – many of our sites are large and change rapidly over a short period. Drones can be used to provide a dynamic visualisation, flagging potential impacts and issues that might otherwise be overlooked, e.g. large plant movement and arrangements
  • Live feeds – these can be beamed directly to a control room for certain inspection requirements (e.g. crane clearance, logistics, personnel movement) allowing for real-time decision making, saving time from errors, reducing previously unidentified risks, and improving quality by aiding the decision process.

Future uses

There is a lot more scope to investigate as UAV technology is constantly changing. The model of the drone we use is a DJI Inspire 1 (we have two), which receives regular firmware updates to unlock new features, such as waypoint route flying, 3D modelling, and automatic panorama creation – with many more to come.

Our drone team meets regularly to practice our skills and investigate possible future uses, such as:

  • Point cloud scanning capabilities which could feed into the BIM model
  • Volumetric measurements of items on site (e.g. excavated materials, supporting logistical planning for removal)
  • Thermal imaging scanning (investigating opportunities to monitor health of concrete works safely, any hot spots in electrical sub-stations, and many more)
  • Waypoint flying (allowing the UAV to fly the same path to create time lapse opportunities and comparative analysis)
  • Upward filming UAVs (allowing inspection of overhead structures, minimising need for cranes or scaffolding)

Watch drones being operated at a Crossrail site and take a fly-through tour of the completed tunnels (filmed by the BBC).

Find out more about innovation strategies at Crossrail in our new free-to-download journal paper.

Find out more about how drones help in construction with our event