The use of drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is increasing on large construction projects. Cheaper, less risky and more flexible than helicopters or other types of surveillance, drones currently can perform a variety of routine and specialized tasks. They can survey and map sites, monitor and document a project's progress, track the location and use of materials and equipment, and check that crews are adhering to work and safety standards.

But this is only the beginning. Research is already underway to explore how drones could be used in the future to perform construction tasks as well.

Advances in employment of drones made industry news this past summer. Several outlets, including the MIT Technology Review, ran a story on how drones are being used to capture video footage of the construction of the new Sacramento Kings stadium in California. Technicians compile the footage into a 3-D picture of the site, which is then input into a software program that compares it against the architectural plans and construction work plan to monitor progress and pinpoint any problem areas or potential delays in schedule.

In Japan, reports Gizmag, multinational machinery manufacturer Komatsu announced the launch of a new service, called KomConnect, "that will connect machinery and workers to the cloud to improve overall efficiency, artificial intelligence-assisted control for operating machinery and, of course, drones." Komatsu has partnered with San Francisco-based Skycatch, which will provide drones that will be deployed to conduct surveys and produce 3-D models, culminating in live interactive maps of the job sites.

And at BuildTech Asia in Singapore, a company called Avetics Global showcased its drone technology designed for construction site surveillance. In addition to site surveying and monitoring progress, the company's founder Zhang Wei Liang said its drones "could even be used to police safety lapses. For instance, the drone camera can tell from the thermal heat emitting from one's head that he is not wearing a safety helmet."

Sophisticated as they are, these applications have only begun to tap the potential of drone use in construction.

Newcastle University student Omar Raja recently wrote a paper entitled "Using Drones to Improve Construction Processes," which was a runner-up in this year's Joint Contracts Council "Creative Construction" Student Essay Competition. Raja points out that builders as yet have a limited understanding of the types of data drones can collect and how it can be utilized.

He also refers to two experiments conducted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, as part of its Aerial Construction Project, in which a fleet of drones were used to assemble a tower using polystyrene blocks and to "weave" a simple tensile structure in the air as examples of how drones could also be employed in the future to perform construction tasks. Just recently, the same group of researchers released a video showing a team of flying robots building a 24-foot long rope bridge.

A European Union joint effort, the Aerial Robotics Cooperative Assembly System (ARCAS), is engaged in developing the "first cooperative free-flying robot system for assembly and structure construction." The aim of the project, according to its website, is to "pave the way for new applications and services in aerial and space robotics," including "the cooperative inspection and maintenance and the construction of structures."

ARCAS researchers are exploring, among other applications, aerial robotics manipulation and load transportation. One of its experiments involved using multiple drones in cooperation with each other to build and deliver a platform that could be used in rescue operations in high-rise buildings. In time, teams of flying robots could transport and position beams and other construction materials in a similar manner.

At present, drones are limited to performing only a few simple tasks. Many issues, both technical and policywise, have yet to be worked out before they could have a practical use in construction, including payload, maneuverability, safety, security, collection of surveillance data and privacy, and the impact on workers and job security.

But with labor shortages and pressure to reduce costs, it is likely only a matter of time before UAVs will play a larger role in the construction of tomorrow's buildings.