Talking through and considering the ways in which drones are going to have an impact on a particular industry is always fun. Whether that’s around controlling a drone in an incredibly innovative way or how they’ll impact the approach around maintenance and repair, the future of the industry is both bright and exciting.
However, talking about that future at the expense of the present can be troublesome, because it’s even more important for professionals to see and understand how drones can make an impact right now. Being able to tell the story around what that looks like for individuals and organizations has been a priority for our site, but a recent case study from Kespry quantifies the real world impact one organization was able to see in unambiguous detail.
The Whitaker Drone Stockpile Cost Savings report lays out how and why the company was able to save time and money by using a drone. They saw a 22% reduction in cost while being able to inspect stockpiles twice as frequently in far less overall time. That’s without even considering the safety impact drones made for the people who previously had been putting themselves in harm’s way to gather that same info. It was a difference John Davenport saw and experienced in multiple ways, and I was able to connect with him for an in-depth interview to explore some of those specifics.
Jeremiah Karpowicz: Tell us a little bit about the sort of work you do with Whitaker Contracting. What kind of services do you offer?
John Davenport : Whitaker Contracting and our sister company, Madison Materials, are a third generation family owned business that’s been around for almost 60 years. We do site work, subdivisions, roadway, airport – you name it. We build buildings and we do a lot of paving work for the Alabama Departments of Transportation. We have quarries and manufacture our own materials. What don’t we do is the real question.
Can you talk about how developments and advances in technology have changed the industry and the approach you’re able to take on a daily basis?
I’m fortunate because back when I started in the business, it was before electronic distance meters. I started surveying before there was any of that, so I remember when we pulled a still tape. We used plumbobs. I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of changes, and that’s not just counting the very recent changes. In terms of how it affects our day-to-day life, that’s like asking what it was like before cell phones were around. How did anyone get around before there was a car? That’s the level at which it impacts us.
Today, when we get a job I can go in and build a 3D model of it. We can then load it into a dozer and it gets real time coordinates, so the dozer goes out there and knows exactly where it’s at and cuts to grade, etc. If a picture is worth 1,000 words then a 3D picture like we get with these drones is worth 10,000 words.
It’s almost unimaginable to think of what it meant to work without these tools, and that’s even after having lived through that reality. I know what it means to work without things like an electronic distance meter or even a drone, and yet it’s hard for me to look at all of that and really quantify the difference. We obviously managed to get things done in that world, but the levels of efficiency and effectiveness we can see today by using them are just incredible to think about.
I want to get specific about how you’re seeing that difference with a drone, but first can you tell us about how you got started using the technology. Was the impact a UAV could have on your work something you saw and recognized immediately?
The thing is, I didn’t go looking for a drone, or even consider they’d be able to do much of anything for us. I thought drone technology was happening too fast. I didn’t have any type of confidence in it. To me, at the time, it was too much sugar for a nickel.
However, the president of the company asked me to evaluate the technology. And when the president of the company asks something like that, you don’t say “no”. I was still very skeptical, but I began the process of going through and using the drone and getting data back and determining whether or not I believed it. In a very short while, I came not only to believe in it, but to believe that it was much more accurate. And that was a tough thing to accept at first.
In what way?
I’m like most people. I want to do a good job. I want to be someone you can count on and that you believe in. If someone calls on me, I wanted them to know they’re going to get the right answer. So if this piece of technology was going to give those answers better than I was, then what exactly was I doing? I quickly realized it could actually help me do an even better job than I had been doing though.
The thing that really swayed me happened on one of our construction jobs, which doesn’t have anything to do with the mines and quarries. We learned very quickly that the drone was very beneficial on the quarries and in the mines. We wanted to see where else we could use it. How many other places could we use it to help our two companies save?
On that construction site, we had stripped all the topsoil and made a stockpile out of it. We shaped that pile perfectly, and I went around with the most up-to-date survey equipment available, and I surveyed it. I came up with my quantity for the topsoil stripping. I still remember that number. That quantity was 4,449 cubic yards. It took me about 35 minutes or so to go around and shoot my points and do the calculation and come up with that volume.
Then I put the drone out there, flew it in two minutes and let the data upload it. By the time I had driven back to the office and gotten on the cloud, it gave me a quantity of 4,469 cubic yards. That’s a difference of 20 yards. That’s obviously amazingly close, but the thing that bothered me was that it got more quantity than I got. How did it get that number?
I’m kind of like a dog with a bone when it comes to that sort of thing, so I slept on it and kept thinking about it. I finally came to realize that it happened when I would take my points at all of the breaklines while I was going across that pile. The drone was taking an almost infinitesimal number of points so there was no distance between the points where it was measuring.
That’s when I began to believe the data we were getting from the drone was more accurate than even my survey grade data, and I knew I could use that to make a difference in terms of how we were going to approach a project.
How simple or difficult of a process is it for you to get that drone up in the air?
I take the drone out and put up a geo-fence telling it an area I want to capture. I tell it how high I want it to fly, and I tell it how sharp I need the imagery. That controls how many photographs it takes. It calculates it’s own flight path based on the geo-fence and other variables I put it. It takes off once we ascertain the landing area is clear and we got through the flight routine and it flies itself. Then it comes back and lands.
Once it’s gone and done that, then all of the info comes onto my iPad. I’ve got the full flight in there, and then it downloads all of the imagery from the drone, and it does that in the field wherever we’re at.
That’s a wholly different process that what you had been doing to gather such data, isn’t it?
It is, and that’s why it’s such a big deal. It really is.
Let’s say you were responsible for calculating seeding and mulching on a long linear job, like a state job. Straight horizontal distance is not the same as slope distance. Your slope is always going to be more than a straight horizontal distance. The drone allows us to measure horizontal and slope distance. I fly a lot of our projects just so I can keep track of what happens when, but then I also went in and measured the areas that needed to be seeded and mulched.
The 3D dimension model you get from the cloud has been incredible to use. You can link in anyone to it, and that’s been fantastic to use with our customers because they can then get in and turn it around on their computers and see what they need.
Can you talk about what kind of a practical difference drones make in terms of safety on a project?
You’ve seen the video where I slide down the pile, and that’s part of the problem right there. If we had moved about 60 feet east, you wouldn’t have seen me stop sliding, because that side of the pile runs down about 180 feet. There’s always a real possibility of falling off these piles, and I don’t just mean falling to the bottom of the pile itself.
The drone takes all of that away. On our quarries we have areas where we reclaim water, and there’s always a possibility of falling into some of that. On construction sites we have heavy equipment running back and forth, but we have to go into these environments to survey the points so that I can do volumetric comparisons and accurately figure out our estimates for payment. There’s quite a bit of liability when you’re walking around out there. It’s really dangerous.
That drones are able to make something “safer” is a talking point I often hear about, but it really does mean something specific to people like yourself who are out in these environments, doesn’t it?
As the guy who would otherwise be sliding down those piles or getting run over, it absolutely does. People have no idea how dangerous this world is, and not too long ago all of that had me seriously considering how much longer I could work in it. Honestly, before we got the drone I had thought about finding something else to do. I had to physically walk the sites. I had to travel across them. And if there were 500 pieces of equipment that day, I’d have to work my way through them the best I could. Physically, it was getting to a point where I just didn’t know if I could keep going.
If you climb up and down some of these stockpiles, and do it for 3-4 days straight, at one quarry and then go to another and another, you end up beyond exhausted. It’s small rock, and you’ve got rocks moving out from under you, and so much of it is two steps forward and one back.
We’re also doing really dangerous things, because we have to figure out how we’re going to do things like manufacture a small rock out of a larger one, or separate a rock from a cliff face. To do so, we use explosives, drills and crushers. We’re talking about very large excavators, very large trucks, dozers, motor grades and everything else. Being able to avoid all of that means a lot to me.
That the push to embrace the UAV technology in your company came from the top seems especially relevant, so what would you tell someone who is looking to convince people at that level in their own company that they really need to look at how drones can make an impact for them?
The one thing I would say is to spend some time with the technology. Think through how it can serve your needs. There are drones that will do all sorts of stuff that probably isn’t geared toward what you’re doing. Focus on what you think can and will work.
That was the approach I took as someone who was skeptical about the technology. I mean, I’m not trying to design the Empire State Building. I want to take care of volumetrics, because we’re moving materials all the time. I want to use it for our customers, to be able to link them in and let them see their project. When I link them in they can see all of the different flights. There’s a record of what you’ve done, and anyone can see exactly what happened before any work started, and then a week later see whenever a bunch of machines landed when the to remove the topsoil, and so on.
That’s how it serves our needs, and I think that’s the approach you need to take.
The bottom-line saving Whitaker Contracting was able to see on account of using drones have been clearly laid out in the Kespry case study, but what would you say to anyone in a similar position who isn’t sure they’d be able to see that type of savings by utilizing drones?
Really, I wish I could somehow let people see how I spent this very morning. I was right here at the computer and I actually did the numbers on three quarries. We no longer do our inventory like we used to. Everything has changed. We do it monthly now, and because everything has become so streamlined, we’ll probably start doing it more often than that. What that lets us do in regard to business is to take that snapshot more frequently. Instead of once, twice or four times a year, we can take it every month and close the books out. That’s a major impact.
It’s something I’m passionate about, because it’s changed the landscape of the work we do, but convincing someone about how they should be using or embracing drone technology isn’t really something I want to do. I’m not trying to sell drones. All I can talk about is what it’s meant to us. The Kespry drone is saving us steps throughout a project, and it’s created a big market advantage.
If someone isn’t sure they’re going to see that kind of similar result, they can certainly wait and keep doing whatever they’ve been doing, but with the way technology is moving, it might just leave someone behind. At a certain point, it comes down to a choice of whether you want to keep walking or get in the car.