Japan's Komatsu reveals how to maximise construction drones

"Anyone can fly a drone; it is what you do with the data that makes an impression," a member of Komatsu's team says

Manufacturers such as Japan's Komatsu are encouraging the uptake of drone technology to monitor construction sites [image: PMV Middle East].
Manufacturers such as Japan's Komatsu are encouraging the uptake of drone technology to monitor construction sites [image: PMV Middle East].

Earthmoving equipment manufacturer Komatsu has identified aerial mapping and analytics as a key component of its Smart Construction solution, a range of integrated hardware and software products designed to offer an end-to-end workflow for each phase of construction.

Komatsu launched its Smart Construction solution in 2015 in Japan, to connect all information on construction sites through information and communication technology. It included technologies and services such as high-precision and survey of job sites using drones, 3D laser scanners, and stereo cameras installed on construction equipment; conversion of 2D completion drawings of construction provided by customers into 3D drawings; analysis of site factors such as soil classification and buried objects prior to construction; construction plan simulations; and intelligent machine control.

To expand its Smart Construction offerings, Komatsu is partnering with drone analytics and manufacturing firms to increase the speed of aerial surveying and data post processing to generate 3D survey data in minutes. In March 2018, Komatsu announced an agreement with Skycatch, a commercial drone data company, and DJI, a manufacturer of civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, to procure a fleet of high-precision drones for Komatsu Smart Construction. The collaboration marked the first time DJI would manufacture custom, enterprise drones and integrate its manufacturing process with another company’s data processing technology.

The integrated solution offered by Komatsu includes a precision mapping drone, Skycatch Explore1; a real-time kinematic (RTK) base station combined with a graphics processing unit-based point cloud processing unit, called Skycatch Edge1; a mission planner mobile app called Flight1; and other data analysis tools.

The Explore1 drone is used to digitise the construction site during the planning, construction, and completion stages. The drone is built on DJI’s Matrice 100 enterprise drone platform with custom modifications. The Skycatch Air1 on-board computer connects the positioning from the global positioning system and the timing from the camera, as well as interactions with the on-board flight controller, to ensure each photo position is recorded precisely. The Skycatch Sync1 camera system features a 20MP camera with a fast shutter. The Skycatch Edge1 generates accurate point clouds and maps, which are automated and accessed through an iOS mobile operating system app.

The Explore1 also takes advantage of the Matrice 100 gimbal, allowing the use of DJI’s X3, Z3, and XT cameras for simultaneous capture of oblique imagery and inspection use cases. According to Skycatch, this dual camera setup enables the Explore1 to capture imagery for 3D models twice as fast as single-gimbaled cameras. The Edge1 utilises RTK networks and eliminates the need for ground control points, while maintaining sub-5cm accuracy. This removes the need for site personnel to mark ground control points (GCPs), survey GCPs when they are displaced, or tag GCPs during the upload process.

Komatsu has deployed Skycatch systems for more than three years. The Explore1 drone is already deployed on Komatsu Smart Construction job sites, autonomously flying overhead to create 3D site maps and models. The drone data integrates with Komatsu’s Smart Construction robotic earthmoving equipment to enable the equipment to precisely dig, bulldoze, and grade land autonomously according to digital construction plans at the earthwork stage of the construction process.

Komatsu is now combining the capabilities of Explore1 with edge computing technology to offer a new service called EverydayDrone, which the company launched in May 2018 for its Japanese customers. The EverydayDrone service uses the Explore1 drone for automatic flight operation in combination with a global navigation satellite system base station called EdgeBox, to provide high-speed data processing on site. For example, it claims to be able to generate 3D site survey data in about 30 minutes, something that would have required an entire day previously.

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The drone survey covers the entire site in a short time, irrespective of the number of machines and people on the site. This enables personnel to conduct drone surveys every day. Chikashi Shike, executive officer of the Smart Construction division at Komatsu, says: “By implementing Explore1, users can carry out surveys quickly and easily. Now it is possible to perform drone surveys every day. Taking off, landing, and flight route setting are all automated. Ground control points are no longer needed, and 3D data is immediately generated. An entire construction site can be visually checked with the 3D map.”

Komatsu is expanding these solutions to other markets. Recently, Komatsu America Corporation, the US subsidiary of Komatsu Limited, partnered with drone analytics solutions company Propeller Aero to help boost the efficiency of construction job sites.

Propeller’s processing machinery crunches thousands of drone images in hours, and delivers the results as a cloud-based 3D model to the user’s desktop or tablet. From there, collaboration and analysis tools let users perform height, volume, and slope calculations, and measure change over time to confirm that a project is on track.

Propeller’s technology platform supports multiple coordinate systems, including local site calibrations. This allows personnel to capture up-to-date survey data expressed in the specific geospatial coordinates they already use on that job site, as local grid support is crucial for ensuring drone-captured maps and models match up with plans and previous surveys.

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According to John Frost, vice president of business development at Propeller, worksites are starting to see the real business value of accurate, up-to-date drone data. “We drive that value through workflows that enable everyone to understand who has moved what material, how much, and where. It is all about empowering worksites with the information they need to make data-driven decisions to reduce costs, ensure quality, and use resources efficiently,” he says.

“Now, more than ever, stakeholders on site, or in the head office miles away, can stay up-to-date with exactly what is happening on the ground.”

Jason Anetsberger, senior product manager at Komatsu America Corporation, adds: “A Komatsu Smart Construction jobsite, by definition, is technology enhanced and production optimised.

“Adding Propeller Aero as one of our key partners gives our North American distributors and customers exceptional capabilities to achieve this standard in the aerial mapping space. Propeller combines simple, yet powerful analysis tools with accurate and fast site visualisation.”

US-based Komatsu distributor Komatsu Equipment Company (KEC) was among the first to roll out Propeller solutions to Komatsu customers as a result of this partnership. Based on the response so far, KEC is confident the construction sector will be quick to adopt this technology. “Anyone can fly a drone; it is what you do with the data that makes an impression,” says Chris Faulhaber, smart construction business manager for KEC.

“Propeller provides fast, accurate data processing via a web platform that facilitates healthy collaboration and delivers vital information quickly.”

This article was originally published by ConstructionWeekOnline's sister title, pmvmiddleeast.com. Read this article, and the latest from the Middle East's plant, machinery, vehicle, and construction equipment sector here.

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