A Day in the Life of a Construction Drone Pilot
No two days are the same when you’re flying an eye in the sky.
When Colin Romberger was a young man, he dreamed of becoming a pilot or skydiving instructor so he could navigate the skies and provide a bird’s eye view of the world below. Now he’s the owner of PrecisionAerial, a data collection and inspection service company based in Lititz, Pennsylvania, and a licensed drone pilot, working primarily with private civil engineering firms that build roadway projects and commercial developments.
“I saw drones as the next internet boom of the 1990s,” said Romberger. “I was in a great place to jump in early and grow a business.”
Romberger uses drones to map or survey construction sites, inspect projects and create aerial thermography reports. Since he launched his company in 2015, he said he’s seen a dramatic increase in the number of construction companies using unmanned aircraft.
In fact, drone usage by construction firms jumped 239 percent year over year, according to a May 2018 commercial drone industry trends report by DroneDeploy, a company that provides software and mapping solutions for drone users. The total available market for drone-enabled services was $127.3 billion in 2016, according to estimates from PricewaterhouseCoopers2, with more than one-third of that coming from construction and infrastructure industries.
Romberger likened flying a drone to playing the claw game at the arcade, the one in which you try to grab a stuffed animal — except that instead of staying in the glass box, the pilot can navigate almost anywhere federal rules allow.
What’s his day like? There’s rarely a pattern. Some days he will drive from jobsite to jobsite, snapping aerial photos or videos. Other projects can take up to a week to complete. Occasionally, he spends more time in the office building reports for clients.
Romberger said the most important skill to master is managing multiple tasks at once. For example, he must control the drone while watching for hazards, operating the camera controls and ensuring the flight stays in compliance with FAA regulations.
He typically pilots the aircraft from the ground. If he’s building an aerial map, he sometimes lets it fly solo. “We often allow the aircraft to fly autonomously and capture the necessary images in these cases,” Romberger said. “So we're really just watching it from the ground without much interaction at all.”
The big draw of drones: Saving time and money
Companies use drones to save time, save money and boost safety (since drones can go places that can be risky to humans).
Romberger recalled working on a project in central Pennsylvania, where a client stored aggregate used by other construction companies. The inventory needed to be measured every year, and the company typically hired a team of surveyors to do it. The process, Romberger said, took about a week and the bill cost $75,000.
“We did the same volumetric assessment on their site for about six hours one day and spent the rest of the day processing the imaging and building a report,” Romberger said. “This bill was about $5,000.”
Romberger has also helped clients manage projects from afar. Instead of traveling to a site to check in, then making the return journey, the company can review Romberger’s real-time aerial footage from their home office. Not only does this service save time, but it also cuts traveling costs.
Romberger has seen project managers use his images to gauge the progress of certain teams so they can schedule the next team’s arrival. That tactic helps companies tighten time gaps between project tasks.
“It keeps people honest, in a good way,” Romberger said. “When we bring in the aircraft, they know something is checking on them on a periodic basis.”
The productivity benefits extend to designing, as well as bidding. Romberger works with many roadway companies that ask him to capture video footage of an area and combine it with CGI effects to show bidders a vision of the finished product. After reviewing the footage, companies may decide they need to change something in the design, saving them the headache of alterations after the construction is complete.
“I would say if there are companies out there considering the benefits of drones, they should reach out to someone soon who can show them what’s available.”
To learn more about drone services at United Rentals, contact the Advanced Solutions Group ([email protected])
Emily Canal is a staff writer at Inc. Magazine and has reported pieces for The New York Times, Boston Globe and Forbes.
Image credit: Dmitry Kalinovsky / Shutterstock.com