Surveying safely: The use of drones

Updated: Feb 18

Health and safety in construction remains a key challenge for the industry. The hazards for workers are many and varied across different phases of the project and asset life cycle. Those hazards exposed to surveyors—from environmental or process/activity such as vehicle or machinery movement to dangerous substances, high structures or structure stability, adverse weather conditions and more—have traditionally made lengthy risk assessments a requirement. Technological innovations such as the use of drones to capture topographical site data mean that surveyors don’t necessarily need to be on-site or in dangerous areas to acquire data, making accessing it safer and easier, especially in hard-to-reach areas. This can shorten the cycle of otherwise lengthy risk assessments, not to mention land access approvals, and speed up data collection from months to hours.


At Sensat we believe that with the right data-led solution, as an industry we can translate the real world into a digital format, capturing quality data quickly, making it easily accessible and using it more effectively so that everyone in the asset lifecycle can track progress across a whole project and make projects safer whilst doing so.


The industry tradeoff: safety means less productive


In an industry which has previously lagged in enhancing productivity, it has often been regarded that there is a trade-off between safety and productivity, whereby improving the safety of construction sites sacrifices productivity. However, with the improvements in technology and data quality, forming part of the industry’s digital transformation over the past few years, and its acceleration during the pandemic, this is not and should not be the case—in fact, quite the opposite. The capabilities of technology are improving both safety and productivity simultaneously.


Commenting on the state of the industry the UK construction playbook stated, “construction remains a hazardous industry, accounting for almost 30% of all fatal injuries to people in the workplace. Performance has improved over the past two decades, however, the levels of incidents and ill health remain high and improving delivery speed must not come at the expense of health and safety”.


As of 2002, workplace injury rates have seen a downward trend in injury numbers, however construction retains a statistically higher injury rate than other industry averages. The most recent HSE 2020 report states that “safety in the construction industry has never produced acceptable figures”. Construction fares significantly worse in contrast to other industries’ injury averages. Approximately 2.8 per cent of workers in the construction sector suffered from an injury averaged over the past three years, compared to the all industries average of 1.8 per cent.


When delving deeper into these results, falls from height accounted for 19 per cent of construction injury reports compared to the all-industry average which was 8 per cent. Similarly, being struck by a moving/falling object was also higher than the average industry. Such injuries caused by the construction industry are estimated to cost over £650 million per year, many of which could have been avoided with the right precautions.



Hazards facing traditional surveying methods


The exposure of workers to dangerous sites should be minimised at all cost. Traditional means of surveying currently face excessive amounts of hazards. Such dangers include:

  • Live site hazards:

Surveyors exposure to on-site hazards of a live construction site is ever-present. From being subjected to moving machinery, such as cranes and diggers to risks such as projecting nails, broken glass as well as uneven surfaces underfoot, the best practice is keeping construction area footfall to a minimum—limiting sites to only those who really need to be there is the best mitigation strategy.

  • Industry sector hazards:

All industries whether it be road, rail, or oil and gas, face additional sector-specific hazards. Conducting surveying operations on functional infrastructure can mean exposing workers to dangerous situations. Taking the highway industry, for example, recent statistics issued by the UK Government revealed that road workers have reported over 6,500 incidents over three years between 2017 and 2020 where drivers had gone through cones and into roadworks sites.


Land surveyors will often spend time by the roadside exposed to fast-moving traffic which poses a potential risk. Recently Osborne came to Sensat with this issue when needing to survey the A46. Due to the dangers presented by the live highway, traditional methods of monitoring progress would have required Osborne to implement traffic management systems and road closures. This would have created thousands of pounds of added costs and disruption to the public. Sensat was able to provide Osborne with a better way of using drone surveying. Read the full case study here.

  • Contamination:

The exposure of workers to contamination should not be underestimated when surveying. Ground waste, contaminated water, asbestos, chemicals in storage and contaminated air-conditioning units, to list a few, all pose serious risks to workers. These hazards can easily be avoided through the adoption of drone mapping technologies, taking feet off the ground.

  • Unstable structures:

When surveying, workers can be exposed to many different types of structural challenges, from holes in floors and roofs, to scaling scaffolding, or rotten roof deckings and joists, slippery roof coverings and broken access hatches—all of which pose a serious safety risk. The failure of structures has the potential to cause serious if not life-threatening damage if the structure is not assessed or assembled properly prior to surveying. Even if the structure may seem safe to the eye, many structural hazards appear hidden leaving workers at risk to defective parts such as broken boards.

  • Difficult to access locations:

In surveying, workers are often subjected to dangerous or difficult-to-access locations when conducting surveys. For example, Mott MacDonald and BAM Nuttall needed to enhance existing tidal defence infrastructure along the Hull frontage which had been deteriorating. However, using a manual ground-based survey would have involved putting workers on the ground in an extremely unsafe environment over three weeks. The years of operation had caused many waterfront areas to become clogged with sediment and moss. Some areas had become completely inaccessible during high and medium tides. Sensat was able to mitigate these risks entirely by utilising drones to capture, digitise and deliver an accurate 3D digital model of the site in just two days. Read the full case study here.


Thankfully, it’s no longer necessary for workers to be subjected to the use of rope access methods to carabiner down the sides of bridges for inspection, or to have to face remote access areas as experienced in this case study. The minimisation and mitigation of hazards are imperative in lowering construction injury numbers.

  • COVID-19:

In addition to the hazards previously explored, the COVID-19 pandemic posed a new hazard for construction employees, not only on-site but throughout the whole worker’s journey—from using public transport to sharing equipment on site. In times such as these, it’s even more imperative for adjustments to be made in order to mitigate the spread of the virus through a focus on the separation of workers and enhanced equipment and cleanliness protocols.


So as an industry what can we do to help minimise on-site risk?


How drone data capture and visualisation technology can improve safety, efficiency and more


Drone technology and data visualisation is an excellent way for the construction industry to improve the health and safety of employees. At Sensat we recognise that efficiency does not have to be compromised for a safer working environment. In using technologies such as drone mapping and data visualisation, our teams can help construction sites, not only prevent the exposure of survey-related dangers but also provide the data in a unified platform which project teams are able to access anytime, anywhere so that personnel can monitor projects from afar, as well as improving the productivity of projects.


Through utilising drone capture and data visualisation we can improve:


Health and safety

Sensat use market-leading UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) technologies to ensure the safe data capture of your site, with the ability to collect data away from the actual site needing assessment—taking boots off the ground entirely and avoiding hostile environments


Productivity

With drones, profit, safety and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Drone data capture and the right visualisation platform in place allow for better data-led decisions to be made from an accurate digital site replica. This keeps workers and the public safe while positively impacting the productivity of a project.


Drone surveying enables us to cover ground up to 400x faster than traditional methods, which, in turn, allows projects to work more cost-effectively with high-quality data. Traditional methods of data capture often take weeks, if not months, and by the time the data is collected, it can quickly go out of date if it is not already. In using digital visualisations of their sites, teams are able to better preempt and assess hazards before even stepping on-site.


Site accessibility

Using our drones we are able to access areas which are too dangerous to send workers to. Manoeuvring drones to inspect difficult-to-access areas prevents the need for sending workers to such environments.


Not only is Sensat able to collect data from difficult-to-access environments, but we also make data more accessible through the use of our platform. For example, during the pandemic, Morgan Sindall and Volker Fitzpatrick used Sensat’s mapping and visualisation software to keep track of their Barking Riverside project. Sensat conducted fortnightly scans to relay regular progress monitoring and up-to-date topographical information for assessing earthworks.


What this means for the industry


Employing alternative methods of surveying means surveyors and experts can do what they do best and apply their time where it matters while reducing boots on the ground and avoiding hazardous environments.


Being able to capture and have access to the latest real-time information about a site or project at the right time and combining it with existing data, is vital to understanding a site or project, monitoring its safety and predicting outcomes and issues, enabling those in charge to make the most informed decisions regarding health and safety.


To discover further insights into data-led transformation, read our papers in our series here. Alternatively, sign up for our webinar The Data-Led Future where our panel of experts discuss how you can achieve transformational change by harnessing five states of data.