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What Construction KPIs Can Be Measured Using Satellite and Drone Data?

Part 3 in our EO Hub construction series

In the evolving landscape of the construction industry, drones have already proven invaluable, and satellite technologies look set to join them, especially for large-scale and mega-projects. Used in tandem, these tools have the potential to transform the sector, capturing precision details, providing a high-level view of project progression, and ushering in a new era of data-driven decision making.

We’ve previously explored the different roles of satellite and drone data in construction progress monitoring and the value satellite data can add for different stakeholders. In the third and final article in our series, we explore the specific roles each of these technologies can play in measuring vital key performance indicators (KPIs), and precisely what KPIs they are able to capture.

Construction KPIs: Key functions of Earth Observation

For construction mega projects, different stakeholders will naturally be interested in different sets of KPIs. While general contractors, construction companies, designers, inspectors and land surveyors will be interested in engineering analysis of every centimeter of the construction, investors and owners will be interested in a more high-level view of the site—very challenging over the vast expanse of a mega project.

In this context, drones and satellites carve out separate but complementary niches in the construction industry, each offering unique insights. Furthermore, these tools are most effective when used in combination with traditional methods, such as in-person land surveying. Used as part of a holistic approach to construction monitoring, Earth Observation tools have the potential to support many different aspects of a project:

Schedule Adherence: One of the hallmarks of a successful project is its ability to stick to timelines. Both drones and satellites can help to monitor the rate of on-site completion. Satellite data will be used to detect high level adherence to work schedule, such as whether the mobilization of resources, equipment, and machinery is going according to plan, or whether the construction of particular structures are on time. Drone data will allow stakeholders to go a little deeper, looking at specific steps for each structure—if the footing is ready, reinforcement installed, support pillars in place, etc.

Budget Management: Both technologies aid in cost control by tracking resource allocation; for example, monitoring the volume of materials being used at different project phases, and by spotting any discrepancies that may hint at possible issues with wastage or theft. Drones are already a standard tool used for volumetric measurements of construction earthworks, proving much more accurate than traditional methods. Satellite data products such as Elevation 0.5 from Airbus allow measurement of 50cm volumes; this may not be accurate enough to provide detailed measurements, but it can give a high-level overview of resources on site.

Quality Control: In terms of quality control, detailed drone imagery is ideal for spotting minute structural inconsistencies or deviations from design specifications. Optical and LiDAR sensor–equipped drones provide absolute accuracy down to the level of several centimeters, which cannot fully substitute traditional high-precision methods, but is more than enough for many engineering KPIs. Satellite imagery, on the other hand, is often the only tool which can detect any changes over the broader area (e.g. surface deformation or environmental factors) which might compromise the project’s quality.

Safety Compliance: On a construction site, safety is paramount. Here, drones can be tasked to spot specific safety lapses, such as improper material storage, the absence of safety gear, or unsafe working conditions. Satellites can measure large-scale hazards such as pooling water, potential landslides, or emissions.

Environmental Impact: Satellites are the best tool for monitoring environmental KPIs. They are unsurpassed when it comes to measuring broad changes in local ecosystems, such as alterations in local vegetation patterns or bodies of water, or even changing wildlife activity. All these factors provide insights into a project’s environmental impact. Satellites are also able to track a mega project’s alignment with any environmental standards and regulations.

Stakeholder Communication: Regular visual updates are invaluable for stakeholder engagement. Here, drone-captured imagery provides detailed insights into the project’s evolution and information about specific structures, while comprehensive satellite images provide a full view over the whole mega-project site, allowing stakeholders to follow the project’s progression in its entirety.

Construcion KPIs monitoring

Productivity Metrics: Specific KPIs and units of measurement

Having touched on the overarching roles of drones and satellites, it’s worth digging deeper into some specific KPIs and their units of measurement to help understand the contribution of drones and satellites when it comes to tracking progress. Drones are primarily an engineering tool, while satellites function as a management tool, and the specific KPIs reflect this. However, both tools can play a role in gauging productivity by capturing specific measurements for accuracy and consistency, with drones quantifying on-the-ground activity like worker numbers or equipment use, and satellites assessing the overall pace and scale of the project. 

For instance, when monitoring earthworks, drones can capture trench depths to a centimeter level, and calculate the volume of excavated material in cubic meters. Satellites, on the other hand, provide a high-level overview of factors that affect the whole project, like the amount of vegetation displaced or percentage of earthworks completed. While foundations are being laid, drones are able to verify the placement of elements using specific geographic coordinates. Satellites offer a broader view, measuring foundation readiness, and a high-level view whether concrete has been poured or not. 

During construction, drones track the exact positioning of structural elements, while satellites can, for example, detect the presence of heavy machinery by count, indicating the scale of work in progress, and can measure the percent of completed structures. In the closures phase, drones may focus on issues like insulation and surface inspections, while satellites capture a macro view of external construction work progress, marking high-level milestones as they’re achieved.

Of course, different types of construction projects will require different types of KPIs to be measured. For instance, in infrastructure projects, drones measure specific details, such as the distribution of power lines or the height of structures in centimeters. Satellites count larger features, like the total number of turbines or pylons, and can provide high-level volume measurements, like cut-and-fill analysis in cubic meters. Within civil engineering, drones deliver detailed and quantitative geometric analyses, whereas satellites offer high-level insights assessments of construction progress and broader environmental impact assessments.

Earth observation in construction: a suite of tools for complete and holistic project oversight

Drones and satellites have undeniable potential to revolutionize the way we approach construction, particularly in large-scale projects. These technologies, when coupled with advanced analytics, offer an unparalleled depth of insight, allowing for meticulous tracking and improvement of vital construction metrics and KPIs. This holistic overview, combined with granular detail, grants managers an extraordinary level of control and oversight.

Throughout this series—describing the different roles of satellite and drone data in progress monitoring, showcasing their immense value for various stakeholders, and laying out their functions when it comes to KPIs—it’s hopefully become clear that the use of these technologies drives efficiency, refines quality, and significantly augments the chances of a project’s success.

As we conclude the series, we hope that the construction industry is ready to embrace these advancements, not just to keep mega-projects on track in terms of efficiencies, but to propel the entire sector into a more precise, informed, responsible and sustainable future.

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Exploring the role of satellite and drone data in construction progress monitoring
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Making Sense of Satellite Imagery: How Can We Process Data at Scale?
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How can satellite data add value for different construction stakeholders?
Aleks Buczkowski 11.22.2023
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How can satellite data add value for different construction stakeholders?

Part 2 in our EO Hub construction series

The construction industry, traditionally one of the slowest to embrace digital changes, has been making notable strides in recent years, with increasing interest in drone technology. But while UAVs are now commonly seen over modern construction sites, satellite data has not yet been adopted in any meaningful way.

However, the tool is emerging as a potential game-changer when it comes to large-scale and mega projects: while a few simple buildings can be easily monitored on foot, expansive mega projects, often spread over hundreds of kilometres, pose a unique challenge, exceeding the capabilities of traditional mapping or even drone technologies.

In this, the second in our three-part series on the use of satellite data in construction, we look in more detail at the myriad ways construction stakeholders can leverage satellite data across the entire construction lifecycle of these enormous sites.

Satellite data for construction sites

Satellite view of the construction of Istanbul airport — image from European Space Imaging

What kind of satellite data can be used by the construction industry?

When it comes to satellite imagery for construction, there is a simple rule: the higher the resolution, the better. And with 30cm resolution now available from several satellite providers, the data available is more precise than ever. Furthermore, this can be enhanced to 15cm by super resolution, which, although it cannot add any detail missing from the original image, significantly improves its readability by both humans and machines. 

However, there are other facets to satellite data which improve its usability for construction stakeholders. Among the most notable are improved elevation accuracy and orthorectification.

0.5 elevation accuracy: The degree of accuracy in measuring elevations is crucial for understanding topographical variations across large construction sites, and satellite data is now accurate to within half a meter (0.5m). This degree of accuracy ensures that designers, architects, engineers, and contractors have a reliable and nuanced understanding of the terrain. This facilitates more informed decisions in the project planning and design phases, allows for precise calculation of earthwork quantities, better predictions of drainage patterns, and a detailed understanding of the site’s environmental and geotechnical conditions. Moreover, with the advent of Building Information Modeling (BIM) and other digital tools, highly accurate elevation data becomes even more vital, as it leads directly to a more realistic representation.

Orthorectified imagery: Orthorectification is a process that removes the effects of image distortion due to perspective, tilt, and terrain relief. It is created by calculating the nadir view of every pixel in the image, with the resulting ‘orthophotos’ having the aesthetics of a photograph and the positional accuracy of a map. Orthorectified images always show the earth’s surface from the same nadir angle, which is critical for change detection and comparing timeseries of satellite data with each other, and have a uniform scale, essential for mapping and monitoring. Marketplaces like UP42 offer orthorectified images as well as orthorectification services.

Satellite data in orthorectification process

Before and after orthorectification — image from Esri

Satellite Data adds value for every stakeholder, throughout the construction lifecycle

It’s an observed trend that construction projects—especially large-scale and mega projects—often experience budget and cost overruns. Such projects are typically very ambitious in their scope, and pose inherent management challenges due to both their engineering complexity and sheer geographical spread. Without comprehensive data and appropriate analytical methods, effective management becomes an uphill task. Continuous situational awareness is therefore essential—and in this context, satellites have the potential to add transformative capabilities to the construction sector as a high-level management tool. They can also be complemented by the use of drones, which remain a key engineering instrument for capturing detailed measurements.

However, it’s important to note that neither technology can entirely replace the precision and expertise of land surveyors and on-site supervision. Combining traditional methods with modern data collection tools ensures stakeholders are equipped with current information, facilitating prompt and informed decision-making. This proactive approach aids in risk mitigation, ensuring projects remain on schedule and within budget.

This table illustrates how satellite data comes into play for different stakeholders at different stages of the construction lifecycle:

Satellite data for construction sites

For developers and investors, satellite data presents a wealth of accurate, detailed information about a site and its surroundings, in an easily-readable visual format. Developers can therefore make informed decisions regarding a project’s feasibility—and its potential profitability. As the project unfolds, these stakeholders can employ satellite data to ensure that progress is in line with budget and timeline, aiding in the early identification of potential hiccups and minimizing financial risk.

General contractors can incorporate near-real-time satellite data into their management process to help them coordinate construction activities, such as the movement and placement of equipment and materials, with precision. Furthermore, they can monitor the ongoing progress and quickly spot any deviations or issues. This results in enhanced productivity, cost efficiencies, and improved quality control.

For designers, including architects and engineers, satellite data can be an unparalleled tool for site analysis, shedding light on factors including topography, land use, environmental nuances, and surrounding infrastructure. This wealth of information can be instrumental in helping designers draw up plans for constructions that work in harmony with the existing environment.

Construction companies could derive similar immediate benefits from satellite data to general contractors, with applications in project management and quality control. However, these companies can also utilise satellites in their long-term strategic planning, whether scoping out potential locations for future projects, tracking market changes, or post-completion assessment of processes and projects.

Land surveyors may be able to use satellite data to minimize dependence on exhaustive and costly ground surveys, as high-definition satellite imagery can provide intricate details about a site’s topography. However, it’s essential to bear in mind that satellite data, while hugely valuable, might not always serve as a complete substitute for on-the-ground surveys—especially where pinpoint accuracy is required or where surveying extends to subterranean features.

For inspectors, satellite data can be instrumental in ensuring that construction activities abide by environmental and regulatory requirements. Inspectors can use the data to validate that the physical infrastructure aligns seamlessly with approved designs. Furthermore, in the event of inappropriate or illegal practices, like unauthorized waste disposal or unauthorized construction sprawls, satellite images provide clear evidence.

Lastly, for owners, satellite data provides a panoramic and comprehensive view of their assets. From a macro lens helping to monitor progress during the initial planning and construction phases to a meticulous tool for ongoing facility management, owners can monitor structural health, coordinate maintenance schedules, and even gauge potential threats from natural disasters.

Satellite data for construction sites

Satellite imagery of Shanghai. Image from Airbus

In essence, when it comes to high-level data collection over a vast geographical area like a construction mega project, satellites are the only way to map the entire site. The technology facilitates informed decision-making and transparency throughout the construction lifecycle, ensuring all stakeholders are both well informed and also held accountable. It streamlines coordination, enhances efficiency and precision, and ultimately leads to more successful outcomes for everyone involved.

A future of enhanced stakeholder confidence

The world of construction is fraught with challenges, but the integration of satellite data is poised to be a game-changer, particularly for the management of expansive mega projects. It offers unparalleled situational awareness, facilitating informed decision-making and risk management across all phases of the construction lifecycle. Every stakeholder, from property developers to environmental inspectors, can harness its potential: beginning with the careful tasks of site selection and project design, through the strategic orchestration of activities and compliance monitoring, right up to and including long-term facility management.

With satellite data in their toolkits, construction companies can benefit from enhanced project management, better quality control, and improved safety—all of which translates into successful projects delivered on time and within budget. In the final segment of our series, we will delve deeper into precisely how this is done, by considering which construction KPIs can be measured using satellite data.

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