In addition to playing a critical role in military operations for reconnaissance and assault purposes, unmanned drones are also emerging as vital tools for the automation of construction equipment.

In Japan, construction equipment giant Komatsu has turned to US-made drones in order to facilitate the operation of automated equipment on the ground.

While driverless trucks and vehicles are already widely deployed on mining sites around the world, the automation of construction equipment poses a far more difficult challenge, given that bulldozers and excavators must interact with and manipulate a far more complex environment consisting of varied and malleable terrain.

Komatsu has made efforts to develop automated construction machinery for a number of years now, spurred by Japan’s ageing workforce and an increasingly acute shortage of able-bodied construction workers.

Difficulties in accurately mapping site terrain within a practical timeframe, however, has stymied such efforts. While Komatsu experimented with the use of ground-based scanners, the company found that they took too long to provide accurate data.

The solution that Komatsu finally devised is to use flying unmanned drones to conduct reconnaissance of building sites from the air. 

First, drones built by San Francisco-based Skycatch Inc fly above the work site and scan it from an aerial vantage point. The images are then dispatched to computers that are capable of using the data to stitch together highly a precise 3D model of real world conditions on the ground.

Aerial drones are far quicker than ground-based scanners, requiring only one or two hours to survey a site that would take two people a week to thoroughly measure.

Unmanned construction machinery developed by Komatsu can then engage in work independently by using these detailed 3D site models. Human operators are only needed to monitor their performance and intervene in the case of minor hiccups or mishaps.

Komatsu plans to launch a leasing and operating program for the automated equipment under the title “Smart Construction” in Japan next month, which is expected to see the company make use of at least 200 Skycatch drones over the next few years.

Whether or not drones can be deployed in the construction sectors of other countries to equal effect remains highly uncertain, however, given strict legislation governing the operation of unmanned aerial devices.

This is particularly the case in Australia, where the country’s Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA) is expected to introduce some of the world’s toughest regulations governing drone usage in 2015.

Australia is already one of few countries in the world which strictly regulates the usage of drones for commercial purposes. Professional users are required to obtain an operating license from CASA, while any drone flights themselves require explicit approval from CASA, which in turn entails a lengthy application process that includes the filing of key documents with the regulator.

Failure to satisfy these requirements can incur harsh punishments, ranging from annulment of the operator’s certificate to the filing of criminal charges for offences deemed serious by CASA.