Ask the Expert: Drones Take Flight

Benefits and risks: The use of drones in the construction industry

December 19, 2023 Photo

The Expert:

Tom Critchfield, Specialty Advisory Risk Partner, Marsh


QUESTION: How are drones being used in the construction industry, and what are the risks and challenges associated with their use?


A: In the past, construction companies have used open sources, such as Google Earth, to obtain aerial images. However, these images may be:

  • Out of date for their intended purpose.
  • Low resolution.
  • Covered by clouds.

One alternative approach has been to purchase better quality aerial images; yet, the same issues often remain.

Global positioning systems (GPS) and total station positioning equipment have been used to develop site topographies. This requires teams to physically walk the site and collect data points. While drone technology is not yet as accurate as physical topographic surveys, and as such not in a position to completely replace this activity, drones can currently support and enhance them.

Drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are increasingly being employed to develop photogrammetry (the process of taking overlapping photographs of an object, structure, or space and converting them into 2D or 3D digital models) and light detection and ranging (LiDAR)-based models for construction sites.

The models provide developers, contractors, and design consultants with up-to-date and accurate aerial imagery and topographies. These tools can be extremely useful on major construction sites. They can communicate key matters-—such as schedule, layout, design changes, and encountered conditions—to internal and external stakeholders.

Drone-based models and imagery can be used in claims preparation as they can provide highly compelling evidence about onsite matters.

Construction companies are encouraged to consider several questions relating to drone use. These may include:

  • Do you trust subcontractors to fly over your site and collect potentially sensitive data? It is important to note that any reputational damage caused by an incident may impact the developer or main contractor on site.
  • Are your risk registers accounting for regular drone flights? A flying UAV could potentially distract operators and site teams, collide with overhead utilities and cranes, or impact personnel and property inside and outside of the worksite.
  • Are the UAV operators licensed and qualified to undertake the flights and surveys? Many countries have specific requirements for licensing and for obtaining permits to fly and collect aerial images. In urban areas, these requirements are often more stringent.
  • Are you correctly caveating any issued models or imagery? Models can measure volumes, inform design decisions, or be used in claims. How accurate are the models and what are they being used for?

Understanding the opportunities and risks around drone use is critical to effective risk management. To overcome the challenges outlined above, risk mitigation is a good place to start. If drones are used on and around a construction site, risk transfer can give confidence to the project, the business, and the team.

The construction industry is increasingly utilizing drone technology to optimize productivity and capture new insights. However, as the market expands and drone use becomes more prevalent, businesses could face complex and high value associated risk exposures. An insurance broker or risk adviser can help navigate these risks and, importantly, help construction operations understand more about when and how drone use could affect their existing policies.


About The Authors
Phil Gusman

Phil Gusman is CLM's director of content.

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