Air apparent: Drones find niche as capabilities grow
Bill Sutton sees drones delivering materials to construction sites in his company's future.
It is a future that may not be so far off.
As drones gain wider acceptance, most notably in residential real estate marketing and commercial construction, Sutton believes the technology will only get better and cheaper.
Pilots already have a growing list of drone options as new equipment frequently hits the market. Drones can be purchased for less than $1,000, though commercial drone companies spend tens of thousands of dollars on high-end models that are equipped with better cameras, can fly longer and are easier to control. Other capabilities such as thermal imaging also can push the price tag up.
New drone-service companies also continue to pop up for those not interested in getting licensed to fly their own.
Sutton is vice president of business development for Silver Spring Township-based contractor R.S. Mowery & Sons Inc., which does business as Mowery. Mowery has been using drones as a way to monitor construction site progress for clients since late 2016.
Building owners love the aerial images captured by the drones, Sutton said. “The vantage point of the drone is unlike anything you can get on the ground.”
But it is not just about the views from above.
Drones are saving contractors and owners time and money on site status reports. They also can help builders identify issues that might not be seen from the ground, which can improve overall construction accuracy.
Sutton, who spends a few hours each week flying drones at active job sites, said he sees even greater potential. Mowery plans to add thermal imaging capabilities to help scan existing buildings it may be redeveloping. Thermal scans may uncover problems such as water and air leaks.
Sutton is one of two licensed drone pilots at Mowery, but the company is hoping to add more, he said. Mowery has two employees in the process of getting licensed.
“Our latest vision is that every superintendent on site would have their own drone,” he said. “We can’t hit all jobs right now.”
Mowery, which finished 2017 with $137.8 million in revenue, has a lot of jobs within three to four hours of its Cumberland County headquarters.
The company has about five to 10 active job sites going at any given time. It is known for building distribution and warehouse facilities, senior-living and higher education buildings, as well as renovating auto dealerships.
Mowery also has a team handling smaller adaptive reuse projects. The latter includes a few small apartment and office projects in downtown York.
Sutton believes the construction industry is still a few years away from viewing drones as an everyday part of the business.
Licenses take time to get and insurance coverage can be costly due to public safety concerns about drones falling out of the sky and injuring people. Buying and maintaining drones also costs money.
Drone acceptance is not fully there yet, agrees Michael Rose, president of Impact Disaster Services LLC in York.
Impact Disaster Services uses drones to assess things like roof damage, Rose said. It can be quicker and safer for employees.
But the problem, he said, is that some insurance carriers still want further documentation beyond what the drones collect. In other situations, video conferencing through FaceTime and other mobile video applications can help restoration companies share live images of a damaged facility with claims adjusters. Additional drone images might not be needed to document the damage and get the rebuilding process moving.
“I would love to use it more, but we’re at their mercy about how they want to accept the data,” Rose said. “For our work, it is good for the before and after shots.”
Impact Disaster Services, whose revenue rose to $4.3 million last year from about $2.8 million in 2016, primarily handles property fire repairs and other exterior restoration work.
The company serves residential and commercial clients throughout southcentral Pennsylvania, as well as in Delaware and Maryland. As part of its current growth plan, Impact Disaster Services is opening a new office this month in Joppa, Maryland. The company’s workforce will grow to more than 40 employees as a result.
The company also is moving into a larger facility at 3495 Industrial Drive in Springettsbury Township, allowing the company to centralize two leased spaces into one.