Aurecon is aiming to be the first consulting engineering company to become a registered drone operator in South Africa. The infrastructure advisory and engineering consultancy company intends to use their squadron of drones as a value-adding tool on client projects, believing it will significantly enhance the company’s service offering.
Richard Matchett, Aurecon Digital Lead RSA says that what initially started as a fun idea, arousing a great deal of enthusiasm, quickly turned into a very serious and sober undertaking by the company’s engineers.
“To become a registered drone operator in South Africa, we are required to adhere to the same operational guidelines and legislation as manned aviation. The initiative requires a high level of responsibility from Aurecon. The business systems and governance systems that our Drone Operations Management Team is putting in place are very comprehensive,” he says.
Louis de Klerk Jnr, Aurecon Flight Operations Manager comments that “Aurecon is taking the lead in the engineering industry by deploying drones to its projects in accordance with the regulatory requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority.
“Many members of the local construction industry, including our clients, are not fully aware of the strict requirements written into the South African Drone Regulations. While becoming a registered drone operator carries an onerous responsibility, we believe the benefits to Aurecon and our clients far outweigh any perceived drawbacks.”
Taking clients on a journey to shape design solutions
“Clients get a much richer view of a project very early on thanks to the 3D models that we create from drone imagery. Instead of having a team of engineers working on a design concept or solution in isolation, the visual and contextual information enables us to bring clients on board for the journey with our design team to shape a better solution for their project. Clients and their internal stakeholders are able to become involved in the project development on a much deeper level in its early stages,” says Matchett.
Enhancing collaboration between the engineers and the client also enables the project team to reach consensus on design much earlier on in a project, which leads to fewer iterations of the design, less wasted time being spent on the development of dead-end design proposals, and more comprehensive feedback from the client. Without necessarily being designers, clients can immerse themselves into the design process with Aurecon.
“The visual content that we are able to create helps clients, technical experts and designers unlock the creativity that is needed for innovation to flourish,” says Matchett.
The benefit of having rich visuals in the concept phase of a project
Having a high-resolution aerial view of a project site or construction activity provides engineers with such invaluable information. It enables them to make better decisions and take remedial actions before small problems escalate, and it helps a design team understand true progress on a site. Having an independent birds-eye view of projects also means that information can be gathered without having to depend on third parties to physically go and measure specific elements on a project site.
During the inception phase of a project, Aurecon’s design teams can get a comprehensive view of a site that they are going to be working on. The high quality aerial photography from the drones captures more visual information than would have been possible during site visits in the past. This information can then be viewed at the office by an audience of designers, technical experts and engineers at Aurecon, who can interrogate the site at their convenience.
Transforming aerial drone imagery into usable 3D models
“We are able to process the drone imagery and create a representative 3D model of the site, the site, which is adequate as a reference to develop world-class engineering concept designs.
The benefit of being able to create realistic 3D models for the initial concept design is that it reduces the time lag that exists between the inception of a project and the receipt of traditional survey information. The initial design concept decisions can be taken early in the design development phase based on the early information. This maintains a constructive momentum of decision making, and improves the efficiency of the project by reducing hiccups due to the inevitable changes brought about when too much time passes between design reviews. While drones aren’t a survey equivalent data capturing method, the benefit that engineers derive from the process through getting information sooner is making the process worthwhile for design consultants.
Improving record keeping through project site photos
Record keeping is another significant benefit for clients of Aurecon’s drone services. Regular overhead project site photos will not only contribute to the development of time-lapse videos to show the progress of a project, but it can also be used to review certain elements or project milestones at a later stage.
“From a technical point of view, using the drone visuals, we will be able to trace back where certain parts of a structure or underground elements were installed in a project before they were covered up. Drone photography also captures ‘the big picture’ of a project site at a moment in time. By capturing a comprehensive view of project sites on a regular basis, we will have a powerful tool for settling any disputes and claims,” says Matchett.
An important advantage of using drones for Aurecon’s engineers is being able to conduct safer and more efficient inspections of high structures, unstable slopes, greenfield and wetland areas. “The aerial view and photogrammetric techniques will allow us to view these potentially dangerous areas normally accessed using ropes, scaffolding and other conventional methods. This is a space where Aurecon is as seriously concerned about safety as the aviation industry,” adds de Klerk.
Drones to become ‘business as usual’
Aurecon’s vision is to make use of drones on its projects ‘business as usual’ in the near future. The company is only a few months away from obtaining its Remote Operators Certificate (ROC) from the South African Civil Aviation Authority, at which point it will start using its drones on selected projects.
Aurecon is currently using drones for the completion of the New Bugesera International Airport in Rwanda. The company obtained a permit from the Rwanda Civil Aviation Authority to take aerial footage of the project site. Aurecon’s pilot on site is using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone to fly in a grid pattern across the 500-hectare site and take over 5000 photos per day. The drone photos are processed into an accurate aerial photograph that is detailed enough to identify plant, equipment and even tools such as spades and wheelbarrows. From this photogrammetric process, a 3D contour model is also created so that earthworks can be assessed from month to month.
“Over time, we believe that Aurecon’s drones and team of pilots will grow to a point where we are able to cover all our major projects and selected smaller projects. We believe that the use of drone technology is going to add significant value to our service offering, while also aligning with government’s goal of obtaining better visibility of infrastructure projects throughout South Africa,” concludes Matchett.