An elevated view

Esri UK signs a partnership with drone hardware specialist Heliguy to create an end-to-end drone solution for the AEC industry

Esri is the foremost provider of GIS geographic information systems, location intelligence and mapping, supplying since their launch in 1969, software to more than 350,000 organisations worldwide. With their vast expertise in the acquisition, distribution and presentation of geospatial data, they have become a natural partner of the AEC industry which, itself, has extended the use of GIS information throughout many projects. This has been exemplified by the new partnership formed by Esri UK with drone specialists Heliguy, to provide an end-to-end drone solution for the AEC industry.

The one-stop solution is the final piece in Esri UK's strategy to offer all parts of the drone workflow to construction companies, providing customers with drone hardware, pilot training and flying services from Heliguy, and adding that to Esri UK's existing comprehensive drone flight planning, data capture and data processing software and its wider GIS platform.

The current focus on improving data collection and accuracy within the industry for site planning and layout, reality and context modelling, construction verification, etc. - plus, of course, the monitoring and analysis of environmental issues and resource monitoring - has seen a dramatic increase in the tools available. Capabilities now range from laser-based aerial surveys, building 3D models from 2D digital imagery, and the use of infra-red and other technologies, to the more mundane helmet mounted 360 degree videos compiled in walkabouts and used to compare actual with scheduled progress on projects, or to highlight accident hot spots on building sites.

To support most of these technologies, though, we are witnessing a bigger shift towards the use of drone technology which can accomplish all of these tasks much quicker, safer and at far lower cost than before. Drones are cheap, versatile and capable of following very accurate flight paths - witness the use of battalions of illuminated drones performing complex maneuvers at the restricted New Year's fireworks displays in London. Drones extend the reach of operators and allow safe access to otherwise difficult to reach areas of a construction site.

All of these data collection tasks are meat and drink to Esri UK, but containing these processes in one solution provides users with a much more cost-effective workflow. It also allows Esri to streamline their processes, and to incorporate drone hardware management and data capture and processing within the solution, linking the information to their data collection and analysis modules, and, ultimately, to integrate the information within CAD and BIM workflows.

A major part of the solution is Site Scan for ArcGIS, Esri's cloud-based drone mapping software for imagery collection, processing and analysis. This allows users to securely process imagery in a scalable cloud environment to create high-quality 2D and 3D imagery that can be quickly shared throughout an organisation.

The illustrations with this article demonstrate the total integration of Esri's solution within a construction project, the first Fig.1, shows the creation of a 3D flight plan using the Site Scan flight management software, used to build a set of images of the exterior of a high-rise building.

Advanced flight modes can be tailored to the type of site being captured. In this case, users can set the bottom and top elevations, the slope or rate of altitude and the number of digital images to be created together with the orientation of the camera. Creating a similar set of images using traditional technology would have been difficult, if not impossible. Flight paths can be created using absolute height coordinates or to follow undulating tracks within a specified height tolerance.

After a flight is complete, the software lets the pilot upload data automatically for cloud processing, saving a huge amount of time as there's no need to return to base and download images onto the desktop.

Fig.2 shows a point cloud of an office building and how the drone's inspection and measurement tool can be used to calculate building heights and orientations and tag the resulting images with the data.

The accuracy that can be achieved with the technology is quite remarkable, as shown in Fig.3, where a volume analysis is represented by a heat map for a cut-and-fill project. The image compares the digital terrain model to the 3D grading surface, with contours. The application settings reveal that the achieved accuracy can be as small as plus or minus 0.05m! Heat maps are also a function of Fig 4, which shows an orthomosaic image of the range of temperatures throughout an asphalt plant at midday.

Esri UK provides similar analytical tools for a wide range of environmental and planning issues, from tracking water sources and assessing flood plains, vegetation coverage, urban traffic analysis and the monitoring of air pollution in built-up areas, all of which provide critical resources for effective and environmentally sound urban and infrastructure planning processes.

Current Esri UK drone software customers include Skanska Norway, Arcadis and PCL Construction in North America, while UAV specialist Heliguy manages some of Europe's largest drone programmes, working with Balfour Beatty, Atkins and Network Rail. The potential in the UK is huge, as AEC organisations which use Esri's GIS software to plan, design, build and maintain buildings and infrastructure include Mott McDonald, Costain, Crossrail, the SKANSKA, Costain and Strabag Joint venture, and Highways England.

Commenting on the new partnership, Craig Evenden, Head of AEC & BIM at Esri UK said: "Esri has invested heavily in creating its drone technology and this new relationship completes the picture in the UK. By providing a single source of hardware and software, the partnership will help customers maximise their investment in drones and GIS. As drone usage grows, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the AEC community is demanding more integrated programmes that can easily grow across their business. Heliguy's vast experience and training capabilities, coupled with Esri's cloud-based drone and GIS software are a perfect match for the AEC industry's new enterprise requirements."

Heliguy is a UK company. It also has a base in Dallas, Texas. The company was formed in 2006 and has been a key player in the development of the industry, making them ideally placed to empower integrated solutions and assist Esri UK in developing its drone strategies. Heliguy's customer portfolio includes companies like Balfour Beatty, Network Rail, Sellafield Sites, Costain, National Grid and Gatwick Airport, as well as more than 40 of the UK's emergency services.

Through the new partnership, Esri UK and Heliguy will work on joint projects, aiming to introduce new and more efficient workflows by bringing together customers' GIS and Survey teams who have traditionally worked separately on drone-related projects.

"The AEC drone industry is still in its infancy, which sees many piecemeal projects with no proper joined-up internal approach, which leads to failure," commented Ruairi Hardman, Heliguy's Business Development Manager. "Internal drone programmes that can scale across a business are a fairly new phenomenon and these are what we look forward to delivering alongside Esri UK. Robust, standardised drone workflows, designed for the long-term, can lead to 1-2% efficiency gains which translates into millions of pounds on large-scale construction projects."

Companies new to the technology and its capabilities will be ably supported by both Esri UK and Heliguy, offering one-stop-shop support to enterprise drone programmes, including consultancy, hardware supply, UK CAA-approved online drone training and industry-specific closed courses, in-house repairs and an R&D lab for custom integrations and bespoke operations. Heliguy also specialises in drone defence solutions.