Keeping up with the latest drone technology helps VolAero best serve the construction and other industries.
By Jim Harris, Senior Editor at Knighthouse Media
The use of commercial unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, has become common in the construction industry in recent years. For many construction companies and drone service providers, the biggest current question surrounding drones isn’t what they can do now, but what they will be able to do in the future.
“We’ve seen that over the last two to three years, drones have made a splash because of all the cool stuff they can do,” says Charles Zwebner, CEO and president of VolAero, a Miami-based drone services provider. “We’re now seeing the maturity of the drone; our clients are asking us where the yield is on this technology. There is always new technology and new software. It’s coming at breakneck speed.”
Zwebner believes his company is at the forefront of the latest developments in the rapidly evolving drone industry. “We keep ahead of the technology curve and have the newest and greatest technology you can provide,” he says.
VolAero’s fleet includes a wide range of commercial drones from DJI and Parrot, the two leading drone manufacturing companies in the world, as well as a range of high end image sensor equipment including RGB, Zoom, Infrared and LiDar. Many of the newest drones used by the company can be equipped with multiple sensors and cameras, allowing them to take and process imagery at a much faster rate.
“We’re also seeing technology breakthroughs with fusion of sensors at the image capturing level,” Zwebner says. “This is where the higher-end technology is headed. We are working with that technology to provide actionable and effective data visualization to our clients who need it.”
The company also sees itself as a resource to clients who may be struggling to adapt to the technology. “As drones and sensors are being used more and more, we are starting to see more collaboration between construction companies, insurance companies and other businesses that are trying to come together to understand all the issues around drones including regulatory and safety issues,” Zwebner says.
“This is bleeding-edge stuff that many companies don’t have their hands around, so there are consortiums coming together to help better understand it and make sure people are using it safely and in conformance with site regulations,” he adds. “We need to make sure stakeholders have proper guidelines in place to use these systems.”
A Competitive Advantage
VolAero focuses on land and real estate-related drone applications including aerial imagery, inspections, surveys and mapping.
Drones allow construction companies and others to capture images in a much more convenient manner than previously available technology. “Drones provide easier access, lower risk and accelerated speed compared to technologies that were already in use, such as helicopters or manned aircraft,” says Jeff Fidelin, chief pilot and imagery specialist for VolAero.
From Images to Data
VolAero provides services to construction industry clients at all stages of a project, beginning with design.
“We use drones and cameras for some of the preconstruction workflows used by architectural and design firms,” Zwebner says. “This can be as simple as taking imagery and photos from specific altitudes and angles, to creating renderings.”
Images captured by VolAero’s drones can also be used within building information modeling (BIM) software. “By integrating data captured by drones, our clients can look at models during construction to see how their model matches with actual drone imagery, built versus design,” he adds.
VolAero’s drones are also commonly used to monitor jobsite progress to make sure construction phases proceed in the proper sequence. Drone footage can be sent to clients, investors and project managers in real time, live streaming and broadcast, which allows them to make immediate effective and efficient decisions to a project as needed.
Drone images are processed using photogrammetry software to produce measurements and other data. “With drones, it’s not just about taking pictures,” Zwebner says. “It’s about creating data from the pictures which can be used in 2-D and 3-D models by managers to see how a project is coming along.”
The data generated by drone images can be used for quality control as well as for georeferencing, surveying, asset management and to determine stockpile volume.
Drones can monitor ongoing operations of a building long after it is completed. This includes the use of drone imagery during structural inspections to determine a building’s structural integrity. Thermal imagery cameras can also be used to detect anomalies in building systems.
“What we’re seeing is that up until now, drones have taken imagery and processed it from the outside of the building,” Zwebner says. “We’re now seeing that move to the inside.” VolAero uses Matterport cameras in many of its interior imaging projects. The cameras capture 360-degree, 3-D images that are useful for in-building visualization.
VolAero’s monitoring services enhance contractors’ existing safety plans. “Drone surveillance can show you whether or not your workers are using best practices – regardless of whether management or an OSHA safety inspector is onsite,” the company says. “You can correct these behaviors immediately and workers will be more apt to use best practices when they know they are being watched.”
Drones can access dangerous or hard-to-reach areas such as unfinished roofs. This allows inspectors to access the area without putting themselves at risk, VolAero adds.
Seeing the Future
Zwebner founded VolAero in 2016 following a 20-year career in the telecommunications industry. His experience includes all aspects of telecom: long distance, dialaround, resale, wholesale, switching, routing, fraud billing, fiber, voice over internet, and large and medium enterprise telecommunication consulting.
Zwebner founded and served as CEO of two companies: Yak Communications Inc., an alternative long distance provider he built from scratch and led to more than a million customers and $120 million in revenue; and CardCaller, which developed the first Canadian fixed amount prepaid, multilingual telephone calling card. He sold both companies at a value significantly higher than his initial investment, he says.
After leaving the telecom industry, Zwebner was attended the International Consumer Electronics Show 2016, and saw Intel display a drone. “Every single media outlet was there to cover it,” he adds. “I said to myself, ‘this is the future.’”
Following his revelation at the CES Show, Zwebner went to pilot school and became a solo pilot, where he learned about aerodynamics, avionics, airspace, air traffic control, navigation, communication and FAA regulations. “I knew I didn’t want to manufacture drones or do software development,” Zwebner says. “I wanted to become a service bureau that could go out and serve companies and stick to an area that I know well – land and real estate.”
Filling a Gap
Zwebner and VolAero continue to embrace new technologies. In April, the company signed an agreement with San Diego-based Geodetics to use that company’s drone technology. Geodetics developed a drone that integrates a light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor for use in GPS applications. Geodetics is also supplying VolAero with mobile mapping products. VolAreo is using Geodetics’ technology to map out a six-mile stretch of road for a re-grading project, Zwebner says.
“This was a missing piece that was required for some of our engineering clients with precision needs and we have now filled the gap,” he adds.
VolAero’s agreement with Geodetics exemplifies its focus on offering the latest technology to its clients. “Every few months there are new sensors, new drones and new software on the market,” Fidelin says. “We want to stay up-to-date and use the best technology available to us.”