By Ted McIntyre

Drone use takes off in residential development

Look up.
You might see the home building industry changing right before your eyes. Then again, you might hear it first—that telltale buzz of multi-prop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.

Want to see what your new subdivision will look like rising from street level to a 400-foot panorama that unveils nearby parks and forests, a creek or a shopping mall a few kilometres away? Would you like to see what your condominium will look like in its actual physical environment after it’s complete? Or how your project is progressing in real time, or scan a rooftop for heat loss? Those are just a few examples of what drones fitted with HD cameras and cutting-edge software are now able to do for developers, builders, architects, surveyors, real estate agents and marketing agencies—all at a fraction of the price of alternative methods.

Many in the industry, however, are still lagging behind the times, suggests says Slava Gravets, CEO of SkySnap, a Toronto-based aerial photography, videography, surveying and mapping company. “Most developers are still selling from demo centres, where they have little models and maybe some computer renderings. But they and their clients don’t see how that project is going to fit into the landscape of the city. We can create a full video to show them that.”

Although they’ve only hired a drone company for marketing purposes thus far, Dustin Greene, V.P. of Operations at Kingston’s Greene Homes, has seen a new perspective of their properties. “It was pretty cool the day (Kelvin Clark of Kingston Drone Pros) came by and droned an area of town where we’re building,” says Greene, who worked with Clark’s firm for two projects last summer at Kingston’s Midland Park and Westbrook. “He flew it up and scanned the whole area and we could see what we’d previously built around town—a view you don’t see every day. Ten years ago you’d have to use a plane to get these sorts of views. But companies like this can do more stuff, cooler shots, at less expense, including modelling how the subdivision can look in the future. It helps people visualize something that’s not there. But it also catches their attention, particularly when everyone sees a million and a half ads a week.”

Such services tend at come at an attractive price point given their relative impact. “The lowest fees you’ll see from us for simple flyovers and video would be $400,” notes Konrad Robinski, UAV safety supervisor pilot camera operator with Barrie-based Sky Eye Media. “But I’ve been working with a medium price of $800 to $1,200 for more enhanced property videos that incorporate a little bit of the area and some narration. For more high-end clients, it’s between $1,200 and $1,600 including post-production and maybe three revisions. It’s a pretty good price, given the fact that when we (are hired for) a feature film set, just the gear to show up, not including labour, is more than what I just quoted.”

It’s an example of the level of talent that’s available for the residential construction industry, although Sky Eye Media’s portfolio is particularly sexy, having honed their craft from years of TV and movie work, with credits including such award-winning productions as The Shape of Water and The Handmaid’s Tale. “When I’m shooting, I want to show my client something unique—some of the techniques we’ve learned from feature films and commercials,” says Robinski. “We can use a ground stabilizer so it looks like a seamless transition from the drone footage, and try to innovate as much as we can. For our DJI Inspire drones, I have the option of just focusing on flying and giving control of the camera to the camera operator. That relationship helps us get more dynamic shots. For example, I’ll be able to swoop in with my drone, nearly missing a structure, and the camera operator will be able to wrap a nice dynamic shot around it—something you can’t do with a single operator or more basic drones. And we have confidence level to fly through or inside tricky structures.”

And it’s not like the resulting video is going to be obsolete anytime soon. For their Inspire 2 drone, Sky Eye often employs a feature film-grade Zenmuse X7 camera capable of shooting 6K raw video. “It’s way more than you need for real estate,” says Robinski, “but it gives us extra flexibility in post-production to punch in on a section of a frame—and when we export that to 1080HD, it’s just as sharp. And shooting at that high a resolution also future-proofs the video for years from now when people might have 6K TVs.”

Although The Sky Guys in Oakville are beginning to focus more on big industry and military applications, they still have plenty of activity on the commercial development side and working with municipalities. “We take a slightly different approach to typical drone company,” explains COO Tom Hanson, whose company recently received a $1 million grant from the MTO to develop drone technology to monitor the entire 2,000 kms of Ontario’s 400 series of highways. “We help our clients understand that video is the most popular media. There’s a statistic out there that something like 80% of internet traffic by 2020 is going to be video. The challenge developers have is that they need to transmit a lot of information in a short period of time to people while holding their attention. A lot of what we do is to capture drone footage and augment it with 2D motion graphics, 3D renderings and that kind of stuff, so that we can help you paint a picture of the entire project, so that you can see it in a bigger scope, as opposed to just a south-facing view if you buy this particular unit. It’s more about telling the story of what your life is going to be like if you live here.”

CentreCourt Developments has employed The Sky Guys for marketing purposes for each of their recent Toronto projects, 411 Church and Zen King West—taking panoramic photos to provide a 360-degree view of the sites. “I don’t know of another way of doing it than taking aerial shots and layering the building overtop (on a computer)—instead of using an airplane or a hot air balloon, which are both more expensive and a lot less flexible,” says CentreCourt Associate V.P. Gavin Cheung. “And a picture tells a thousand words, so it’s a quick, effective way to get people’s attention.”

If drone footage is not part of your project, you’re lagging behind the times, suggests SkySnap’s Gravets. “It’s kind of like telling someone you need to advertise on Google Adwords back in 2008, which was an enormous opportunity at a time when it wasn’t yet very competitive. Drones provide incredible vantage points that we were never able to grab before, and that can be used in a precise format that’s very complementary with other technologies, like computer graphics—taking a 3D rendering of a home and superimposing it on the landscape of the lot as it appears today.”

Real estate agents were among the early adopters, notes Robinski. “Many of our clients use our videos for their presentations and pitches. They’ll come back to us and say, ‘That property has been sitting there for years and right after that video came out we sold it in three weeks.’ The video, just by being out there, will generate a sale. When it comes to smaller clients, that video lives on social media and more clients decide these agents have the latest tools to sell their house, and that agent consequently gets more listings.”

Drone footage is almost mandatory to provide perspective for potential clients, suggests MOD Developments CEO Gary Switzer. “I just see it as an extension of the old days when we hired a company that used balloons. The intent is to show purchasers the view out their windows from different floors. You’re still at the mercy of the weather to some degree, but this is a more efficient way of doing it. And when you need it, you need it.

“I think it’s the way of the future if you want photography that illustrates the view at this and that height,” adds Switzer, whose company hired The Sky Guys for their “Waterworks” project in the heart of Toronto’s King West entertainment district. “It’s one of the first questions you get asked: ‘What’s the view out my window?’ Even if it’s fourth floor and staring at a building across the street, you want to be able to show it. And once you get above that building, you want to be able to show that view too. You want to purchaser to be very aware of what they’re getting.”

“The challenge is that many developers don’t have problems selling, so there’s not a huge incentive to try to adjust their sales and marketing tactics,” says The Sky Guys’ Hanson. “But I wager that we’re gonna see the same thing we saw with real estate agents and residential photos—that as soon as it becomes more mainstream, everyone’s going to jump on board.”

UNIQUE VIEWS FROM ABOVE

But it’s not all about marketing attractive imagery and videos—not by a long shot. Kelvin Clark, the founder of Kingston Drone Pros, that city’s first incorporated drone company, has worked for Discovery Channel and pretty much every level of government. “But the reason I got into it (at the end of 2013) was that my parents are home builders here in Kingston. And I’m also a realtor, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me.

“There are virtually endless applications or drones. You can calculate the math of whatever product you need to bring in, determine sewer depths—it can be as simple or advanced as you want. You can even do LIDAR (light detection and ranging),” says Clark of the surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating it with pulsed laser light and measuring the reflected pulses with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make ultra-accurate digital 3D representations of a surveyed area.

From a land surveying perspective, drones significantly reduce both time and labour costs and eliminate much of the human error involved in the process, leading to better decisions regarding real-estate site selection and property design.

The business model of Guelph-based Data From Drones stresses the information-gathering value provided by drones for developers. “We use drone technology to gather information and images—not pretty pictures—to help you make business decisions,” says Irvine. “Indeed, (our) images are unattractive. Their value lies in how they can tell you things you can’t learn or see from the ground. They answer questions such as: How many cubic yards of gravel are in that pile? How much does the land drop from that point to that one? How tall is that building? That cliff face appears to be slipping down—how much fencing will we need to keep people away until we can stabilize it? Can we get a preliminary visual safety assessment of that 200-foot structure before we send a person up to have a look? What’s the area of that pond? It also helps you compute the area of irregularly shaped properties. And, that’s just the beginning.”

It’s nice to have boots on the ground, but drones have the ability to capture data beyond the naked eye, notes Hanson. “We can even tell if you’re about to have an environmental issue on your property. For example, if you’re doing excavation on a condo downtown and you’re digging a couple dozen feet down to lay the footings, you’re going to want to be wary of the surrounding property and how you’re affecting roadways or adjacent property that you don’t have a right to be influencing. If you’re about to have a sinkhole situation (something that ‘progress tracking’ can detect the future of), or a break in the footing—you can detect potential deficiencies that will have an impact on time and costs. You’d otherwise have to hire a surveyor to do that, and at pretty substantial costs.”

With increasingly violent weather at all times of year, drones also offer valuable—and rapid—feedback. “After a big weather event, we can have a full damage assessment back within hours, compared to how long that would take manually,” says Gord Green, president of SkeyeKing in Burlington. “We can map a roof and project how many shingles are required to do the repair.”

“If you had a low-rise condominium complex and wanted to inspect every rooftop, it would take an incredible amount of time—either getting someone to climb it or get a boom and manoeuvre around trees,” echoes Gravets. “We can cover a large area in a half-day that would otherwise take a small team four or five days to complete. And drones will provide far better and higher-quality footage. If you’re an inspector climbing onto the roof, you’re not taking your camera out to snap a picture of an area where a shingle is missing and marking it down on a map. But with drone footage, (those missing shingles) are already geographically tabbed. And we can change the camera angle to best view the damage. Since it’s a real-time image, so we can focus on areas of more extensive damage so we can note those images and immediately put them into a report—present it to the client, and use that info to build a quote and get insurance claims.”

STAYING ON TRACK

The ability to monitor the evolution of a project—without ever having to leave your office—is one of the most attractive aspects of the technology, stresses Hanson. “There’s a huge value-add for construction progress tracking. We’ll engage with the developer or contractor and do site visits as often as you like to take photos of the property and produce models. Then we host everything on the cloud and provide secured access so you can share that info with all the stakeholders—helping everyone to keep on budget and on time. We’ve seen some pretty significant improvements in terms of project management, workflow and project efficiency.”

Whether it’s the developer, builder or contractor, “it’s an easy way to ensure everyone from investors to the sub-trades knows what’s happening,” says Irvine. “Meetings in the construction trailer become more focused, productive and efficient when the whole team can see where things stand—what has to be done and what shouldn’t have been done.”

The possibilities for drone use are clearly taking off. As solar panels become more prevalent, drones can quickly inspect arrays to determine which panels are dead and which are alive. There are also huge applications for thermal maps of rooftops and building envelopes to detect heat and moisture deficiencies post-construction, not to mention the ability to identify surface contamination on your construction projects with low-altitude photographs. They can also be employed for jobsite inspections in reducing worksite safety, or even for security purposes.

“Every time we open a different phase of a subdivision, we’ll get Kingston Drone Pros in to do photography and video,” says Greene. “But we might even go more intense too. For example, it would be nice to find out how much dirt there was in a subdivision versus what our numbers need to be, so we know how much fill we need to bring in or get rid of.”

“Yep—we can do that,” says Clark. Indeed, the industry appears to be looking up like never before.

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