Could drones help ease Canada’s construction worker shortage?

An aging construction workforce and a shortage of workers has some businesses in the construction industry looking to drones to help fill the gaps in the labour force, which will help them do their work faster and with fewer people.

Drones are being adopted by construction companies across the country to map buildings, track inventory at worksites and help with infrastructure inspections.

BuildForce Canada, an organization that studies the construction industry and puts together long-term labour forecasts, said a quarter of the country’s construction workforce is expected to retire between 2018 and 2027, necessitating the hiring of some 42,000 people by 2027.

“The labour shortage is definitely happening today. We have a huge number of projects that are going on, particularly in Ontario, B.C. and P.E.I.,” said Mary Van Buren, president of the Canadian Construction Association.

Van Buren said companies are struggling to find workers, not only because baby boomers are retiring, but because younger generations aren’t entering the industry.

James Donaldson with one of the drones used by Sitech-Mid Canada Ltd.  (Submitted by James Donaldson)

She believes adopting drones and other technology could help attract younger people.

“Getting the message out to youth — particularly those graduating in science technology, engineering and math — that the industry is actually using technology and it can be a very exciting place to be [is key],” said Van Buren.

Drones can survey and map construction sites faster than work crews on the ground, freeing up labourers to do other jobs, so work can get done faster with fewer people.

“What would have taken you two or three days of work, you can now get done in about 30 or 40 minutes,” said James Donaldson, a technology consultant with Sitech-Mid Canada Ltd., a company that provides construction technology to contractors.

Donaldson said as the labour shortage becomes more pronounced, more of Sitech’s clients are changing their view of drones.

It’s important for work crews to know exactly what supplies they have on hand for a building project. Drones let them calculate inventory faster than ever before. (Pavel L Photo and Video/Shutterstock)

“Our customers in past years, they’d push back against technologies and didn’t want to embrace change. Now, we’re seeing a lot of our customers embracing that change and looking at technology to bridge that labour gap,” he said.

For small to medium-size businesses, Donaldson estimates drones save them tens of thousands of dollars a year, while large businesses save hundreds of thousands.

Pomerleau, one of Canada’s leading construction companies, has been using drones for about five years, said Yuri Bartzis, an innovation manger with the company. Pomerleau typically uses the machines to quickly and efficiently survey large swaths of land for mining and road projects.

Matt Ryan is vice-president of RH Precision Unmanned. (Submitted by Matt Ryan)

Bartzis said he doesn’t believe drones will solve the industry’s labour shortage, at least not yet.

“Making the work more efficient, that’s what we plan to achieve using these drones,” he said. “But sure, come the future, there’s going to be things like robotics that will filter into drones that will be more of a labour saving rather than a time saving.”

That future could be soon. Bartizis said he’s seen tests being done at a U.S. university where a nail gun equipped to a drone drove nails into a roof.

Drones can now map buildings in incredible detail, showing exactly where a structure may need to be repaired. (Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock)

RH Precision Unmanned is an Ottawa-based commercial drone company that has used drones on several construction and restoration projects to methodically photograph and scan a building, which allows the company to create an exact map and 3D model of the structure. That information is then handed over to an engineer.

“What they’re able to do is identify stone by stone where the deficiencies are in the building,” said Matthew Ryan, the company’s vice-president.

Using this information, the tender provides a more accurate description of what areas need retrofitting and rehabilitation.

Drones can help construction crews get a big-picture view of the site they’re working on and spot potential problems they might miss on the ground. (RikoBest/Shutterstock)

Drones are also used to keep track of a job site’s inventory. A quick trip in the air will tell how much wood, gravel, or other building materials are on site. Having adequate supplies prevents work stoppages that could delay projects and cause cost overruns.

Donaldson said before drones, inventory counts could take days at a large construction site.

Drones are also being used to help inspect bridges, said Glenn Hewus, past president of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineering and a retired vice-president with The Federal Bridge Corporation Limited.

This is especially important after a natural disaster, such as a flood, when officials need to determine if a bridge is safe to travel on.

Drones are being used to help survey construction sites, inspect buildings and keep track of building supplies. (Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock)

“Drones give us a quick overview of the state of our infrastructure at any given point,” said Hewus. “It gives the ability to look at things real time in areas that we could not necessarily get to immediately with standard equipment.”

Without a drone, people would need to be lowered into a space using ropes. Adopting drones eliminates the need for much of that work, worksites are made safer by keeping people on the ground.

Van Buren said the range of tasks drones can perform is impressive, but she doesn’t believe technology alone will fix the labour shortage.

“I think it will certainly complement the workforce, but not replace the workforce,” she said.

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