Drones for Architects

New Capabilities for the Construction Sector, How to Get Started and How to Navigate the Law

Hannah Sloan Wood
15 min readApr 4, 2018
Illustration Evgenia Barinova

According to a 2016 Goldman Sachs report, the largest commercial buyer of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS’s, more commonly known as drones) in the next five years will be the construction sector, valued at $11.2bn worldwide. What new roles will drones adopt both in the architectural design process and outcomes? If your firm is intending to mobilize a drone, what should you be aware of in terms of its operation and the law? To look closer at these eyes in the sky, I speak to interdisciplinary design office Noumena who are experimenting with cutting-edge drone technology within their integrated design process. I will also check in with Florida-based certified civil trial lawyer and pilot Michael J. Corso esq., a specialist in drone litigation for architecture and design professionals. For an alternate angle, I get some tips from architect and respected architectural photographer Fernando Guerra, who has collaborated with and captured the buildings of many well-known architects, including Alvaro Siza.

It was eight years ago, back in 2010, that architect and architectural photographer Fernando Guerra bought his first basic drone. Together with a friend, he upgraded the primitive contraption by fixing a custom-made frame to hold additional mini-engines and a high-quality camera. The device could remain airborne for up to two minutes, enough time to snap images of buildings from the sky. Today in the US, it is possible for architects to buy a higher-spec drone off-the-shelf from most major supermarkets.

I caught Guerra just before he was to fly to São Paulo to shoot some new footage. “I always travel with two drones in my suitcase”, he tells me, “so the smaller the better”. Guerra is now one of the most experienced architectural photographers to work with drone imagery, through which he has brought many buildings to life both online and in print. “Nowadays, drones are like another camera lens to me. When I go on a shoot, I hook the drones onto my belt”, he explains, “my process is quite instinctive. When the time is right, I release one of the drones from my belt, like reaching for a wide-angle telephoto lens.”

My process is quite instinctive. When the time is right, I release one of the drones from my belt, like reaching for a wide-angle telephoto lens.” Fernando Guerra

Photograph and video footage captured by drones is becoming an increasingly commonplace method of representing the built environment. Most aerial views now published in the design press are either taken by drones with an even number of propellers, which rise vertically like a helicopter, or fixed-wing drones, that resemble small aeroplanes. This increasing usage of drones within the architecture industry mirrors a boom in the commercial sector at large, in the main due to the increasing affordability of high-spec drones. With the world’s largest logistics firms set to flood the market with cheap drones and delivery robotics in the next five years — Amazon and UPS to name just two huge investors — such trends are expected to accelerate. As Goldman Sachs seductively writes, “like the Internet and GPS before them, drones are evolving beyond their military origin to become powerful business tools.”

While at the time of writing most architecture firms utilize drones for photography after the completion of a building or, for some of the most pioneering, site scanning and feedback during the construction process, a select number of practices at the forefront of the field are pushing the limits of what is possible for drones in the construction industry. Technology-driven multidisciplinary design office Noumena, initiated in 2011 by Aldo Sollazzo and Matteo Di Sora, are taking UAS innovation to the next level by integrating drone data feedback loops into their design practice.

‘Noumena operates in a multiscalar environment, blending codes, biology, robotics and programmable materials into a data-informed workflow’, they state on their website, ‘we embrace state of the art design solutions, mixing environmental strategies with computational thinking from urban scale to robotic fabrication’. Interested to hear more, I got in touch with founders Sollazzo and Di Sora.

UAS collecting data from the air. Image © Noumena

Drones, or ‘aerial robots’, as we prefer to say, offer us a new point of perspective, a holistic representation of the built and unbuilt environment” Noumena

“Drones, or ‘aerial robots’, as we prefer to say, offer us a new point of perspective, a holistic representation of the built and unbuilt environment”, they tell me. “We implement drone technology to unveil components which are widely ignored in a traditional design workflow.” In their latest projects, Noumena are utilizing thermal and multispectral cameras in combination with UAS technology to gather data to then process at one of their offices. “In our practice we always question the role of technology and its ability to inform decision making processes. Technology comes to us under different configurations, as hardware, a software, a robot or a bacteria. We believe in its ability to allow the emergence of invisible patterns, intrinsic correlations, and advanced interactions.”

Noumena’s latest work draws inspiration from their robotics unit NERO (Networking Environmental Robotics) which they established in 2014. The initial aim of this workgroup, which bridges the fields of biology, urbanism and architecture, was to detect the health of plants in the polluted Sacco River in western Italy. “From this experience”, they explain, “we shaped an accurate methodology which allows us to collect multiple sources of data, producing a stratification of information which can contribute to the emergence of invisible patterns, shaping the intrinsic correlations acting in the ecosystem.”

“At Noumena, we consider scale an obsolete sorting method”, they continue, “used to describe the operational context of designers, architects, engineers, construction industry and end-users. Instead, our taxonomy is mostly designed by a data-driven decision-making process.” Part of their practice is to apply drones as an integral part of what they term a ‘multiscalar methodology’, one which defines processes rather than traditional architectural outputs. “Nature as a living organism has a dynamic behavior producing a nondeterministic influence over its environment”, they explain, “this negotiation between organic and artificial is what we try to detect with these drones”.

Aerial average temperature data gathered by drone and environmental sensing platform. Image © NERO / Noumena

We consider scale an obsolete sorting method, used to describe the operational context of designers, architects, engineers, construction industry and end-users. Instead, our taxonomy is mostly designed by a data-driven decision making process.” Noumena

While some outputs generated by Noumena’s data-driven design process have extended far beyond the scope of the built environment — including developing code from a photogrammetry process to detect the growth of bacteria and using this to analyse the number of pineapples in a landfill site in Costa Rica — many projects have direct applications for architecture in real-world situations. For example, their OSR [On Site Robotics] project in collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia and Technalia aims to demonstrate the potential of additive manufacturing technology in the production of sustainable low-cost buildings from 100% natural materials. By activating drones in combination with cable robots and CAD/CAM software, the project team aims to guide the production of high-performance buildings by monitoring their construction in real-time using drone technology.

To work in this rapidly changing field with such diverse project briefs, Noumena rarely use commercial drones. Instead, they work to create in-house custom solutions, much like Guerra did back in 2008. “We adapt the technology to the project needs and not vice versa”, they explain, “most of the time we build our drones, our rovers and our software; or we simply connect open source solutions offered online in a new pipeline configuration.”

Noumena custom fabricates or adapts each of their drones to suit project requirements. Image © Noumena

From many angles, including legality, when you pick up the control and send a drone whizzing into the air, you are still entering the wild west. Drone law varies significantly across the world — countries including Saudi Arabia, Kenya and India have currently taken the hardline stance to ban all consumer flights, while in Canada, Spain and Denmark you can expect tight restrictions, often requiring a license, even for hobbyists.

Architectural photographer Guerra doesn’t count on any sympathy from the police regarding UAS use, despite being a seasoned drone pilot. “Sometimes I like to shoot as quickly as possible,” he explains. “Right now drone law is chaotic, and there are many different systems depending on which city you are in. Take Paris or Madrid, for example — these cities are off-limits to drones. In fact, we are seeing an increase in ‘dead zones’, or ‘no-fly zones’. My biggest fear is that when a major incident happens, you know… laws will just appear from one day to the next”.

In the US, alarmed by the increase in reports of encounters between small drones and manned aircraft — the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) received over 25 reports per month in 2014 which rose to over 100 in 2016 — the FAA have now partnered up with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) to begin an information campaign, Know Before You Fly, to educate users about ‘safe and responsible operation’ of UAS systems.

From many angles, including legality, when you pick up the control and send a drone whizzing into the air, you are still entering the wild west.

So as a architecture or design professional keen to experiment with an off-the-shelf drone, what key things should you be aware of in terms of the law? I put the question to Michael J. Corso, a Florida-based lawyer and pilot with a background in aerospace engineering, to offer a bit of background on the current legal situation in the US. He has been advising architects for over 44 years on matters relating to the drone legislation and legal advice at large, including claims, contracts, administrative complaints and licensing.

NERO’s drones translate varied environmental conditions into data. Image © NERO / Noumena

“It’s not simple”, Corso explains to me, “as drone legislation is discussed and reviewed by many different bodies, and of course differs in the civil and criminal use of aviation technology. As of June 21, 2016, the FAA announced a new Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule for drones weighing less than 55 pounds which requires the person flying the drone to possess a remote pilot certificate, or be supervised by someone who possesses one.”

In the US, the FAA currently stipulates that drones must not fly over 400 feet high, within 5 miles of an airport (some airports have set up geofencing technology which creates a GPS-based radius containing software which can shut down drones) and must at all times remain in the operator’s line of sight.

According to lecture notes Corso forwarded me after our conversation, as of February last year, over 17,000 UAS operators had passed the FAA Remote Pilot Knowledge test (Part 107) to gain the certificate, a tiny percentage in comparison to an estimate that in the same year over 2.8 million drones were purchased in the US. While the certificate was a step towards deregulation compared to previous legislation in which required to possess a pilot license under Exemption 333 to fly a drone in the US, in general the trend in drone regulation is towards tighter restrictions due to concerns over safety and privacy.

The FAA does, however, grant commercial exceptions, many of which fall under the category of surveying and inspection for the US construction sector. A breakdown of FAA 333 exemptions as of April 2016 indicate that construction now directly now counts for 15% of applications received, real estate 25%, infrastructure 25% and photography / film (including architectural photography) 46%.

Companies which have filed exemptions include Amazon and San Francisco AEC firm Bechtel, who are experimenting with drone data collection and processing using drone technology as an integrated part of the process. Data stored in the cloud is analyzed within Bechtel’s design and construction software and viewed on multiple devices by the teams on site. Bechtel demonstrated the viability this construction method as part of its LNG project in Queensland, Australia.

In the US, the FAA currently stipulates commercial drones must not fly over 400 feet high, within 5 miles of an airport and at all times remain in the operator’s line of sight.

Native FAA UAS facility map data user interface by Kittyhawk Design. Image © Kittyhawk

Last year, the FAA published a set of UAS Facility Maps which depict the areas and altitudes in which UAS’s may operate safely (note that this does not automatically authorize drone flights), with the aim to improve the quality and speed of how they process Part 107 applications. User interfaces for this data have now been developed for smartphone users by platforms such as Airmap and Kittyhawk.

However, local drone restrictions remain a contested topic in many States. In the last legislative season, 40 out of 50 states debated changes to UAS regulation, 36 of which have now placed further restrictions. In general, a common motivation for State laws has been lack of confidence over the Fourth Amendment in protecting citizens from unwarranted UAS searches, above concerns over personal safety or commercial activity. Not all States are as scrupulous: in 2017 Utah adopted a resolution supporting the building of a NASA drone testing facility and Command Control Center in Tooele County.

While the FAA regulates overall airspace usage, there is also a national concern over privacy which, while often manifested at a local level, is overseen by the State. This often creates significant confusion, including between specialists, as drone laws also often fall into a grey area between regulation for manned flights and GPS. In 2016, the FAA stipulated that anyone who operates a small UAS (weighing over 0.55lbs and less than 55lbs), for hobby or commercial purposes, had to register with the FAA’s UAS system to fly outdoors, or face civil (up to $27,500) or criminal (up to $250,000) fines and/or imprisonment for up to three years. However, in May last year, a Washington DC Court ruled that the drone registration law violated the FAA’s own Modernization and Reform Act. The FAA is now refunding these registration fees to hobbyist drone pilots.

“There may also be contrasting laws at the individual county level within States, where councils have local ordinances and statutes,” Corso explains to me, “in Miami-Dade County, Florida, there was an amendment to include a civil cause of action for injury or damage to property concerning drone usage. In addition, drone use is outlawed within city limits, especially during state-sponsored events.”

Airspace Authorization for the Commercial Drone Industry. Image © Airmap

Despite this confusion over regulation, the drones are now adopting an increasingly integral role in architecture design and construction processes. In the near future, coupled with the unforeseeable impacts of 3D and BIM design software, drones may radically change the nature of how buildings are conceived and realized. The following is a non-exhaustive list of what is possible with drone technology in the architecture industry as it stands today:

  • Prior to construction, UAS’s can offer architects a detailed picture of a site, including accurate survey data and real-time monitoring. This information can then be inputted into BIM models to develop high-resolution point clouds. According to NBS, this may allow architects to better understand feasibility studies, prepare for client briefings and offer an early indication of what a building may look like. In addition, greater scope and accuracy of survey data means it is now simpler to iterate projects in response to site conditions when used with 3D/BIM software.
  • During the construction process, repeat drone flights can allow for frequent updates to be transferred to the architect and other project collaborators digitally via the cloud. UAS’s can keep a close eye on logistics and asset management and even reduce risk on-site by performing building inspection tasks. In a litigious climate, drone footage may also provide an audit trail should any legal concerns arise later down the line.
  • After handover, marketing departments can readily use drone-gathered material in promotion and sales, such as fly-throughs and aerial photographs of the project. Scanning techniques can also help monitor in-use performance of buildings, such as undertaking environmental assessments post sign-off.

“I like to offer my architectural clients drone footage as an integrated part of the process, rather than a novelty”, Guerra tells me, “all the angles and photographs help tell the story of the building. I connect the drone footage with the other cameras so that these shots complement that narrative”. Right now, his favorite drone models are the Phantom 4 Pro and the DVI Mavic Pro due to their lightness and transportability. He told me he is currently waiting for the next upgrade of the Mavic Pro model.

I ask Guerra what an architect should have at the forefront of their mind before they take their first drone flight. “It’s not difficult or expensive to fly a drone,” he explains, “but don’t start with an expensive drone and fly it on the street.. try small drone indoors first and then upgrade. These days, a drone with a good camera can be bought for less than $1000. Other things… you often can’t trust the sensors on the off-the-shelf drones. Always shoot with RAW and be careful not to overexpose your footage. And watch out for seagulls”.

You often can’t trust the sensors on the off-the-shelf drones. Always shoot with RAW and be careful not to overexpose your footage. And watch out for seagulls” Fernando Guerra

I put the same question to Corso. “Firstly, professional architects need suitable liability insurance,” he explains, “most US-based policies do not cover aviation as standard. It may seem obvious, but I come across many practices who have never checked that out. Most policies do not cover against claims for injury or privacy. Also, familiarize yourself with the FAA codes, just as you would with building codes and standards. And, sit down with your accountant to balance these costs against hiring a company to conduct your drone work.”

“Today US-based architecture firms are increasingly making the decision to subcontract UAS work to new external specialist companies. If an architecture professional opts to take this path instead,” Corso continues, “they should have a watertight contract at the forefront of their mind, one which takes into consideration liability insurance and indemnification.”

According to NBS, both approaches have potential benefits: managing drones in-house enables an architecture practice flexibility of flight times, enables them to develop a new revenue stream and to retain creative control. However, costs are likely to be higher, and liability will also remain in-house. To go external means that there are likely to be lower upfront costs and no need for trained staff and liability will be outsourced, but control and flexibility will not be in the hands of the practice.

Caledonian Somosaguas housing in Madrid. Image © Fernando Guerra

As the drone industry expands, it will offer architects and the construction industry at large powerful and unforeseen capabilities, especially in high-profile projects. In legal terms, Corso suggests that the US may soon see civil and criminal laws regarding privacy being extended for UAS usage. He also suggests that the legality of certain types of drones will continue to shift as numbers increase, requiring lawmakers, as well as the general public, to become more educated about safety issues and civil liability concerns. Overall, the magnitude of the challenge ahead for the FAA should also not be underestimated, especially as technology advances and systems become less expensive and more available.

I invite Sollazzo and Di Sora to comment on what they imagine drone technology might enable architects to do in the future. “Nowadays we believe in the confluence of skills, know-how, professions”, they respond, “we need to define a multidisciplinary protocol integrating different capabilities to produce outputs that are conscious of the complexity we need to face in any stage of the architectural pipeline.”

“There will be no real understanding of the technology if we don’t cultivate a proper education towards it”, they continue, “very often we focus on how things are made, forgetting why is important to adopt new digital solutions. Both sides are strictly correlated, fundamental in shaping new professionals, who act as innovation agents shaping the future. Innovation is produced only in experimental environments which allow to try, invent, fail.”

Noumena have developed their own master program, MA in Robotics and Advanced Construction, offered by the IaaC in Catalonia, in an attempt to inspire the next generation of interdisciplinary design professionals. They are also partners of the Paris-based master course Design by Data, an innovative program which aims to offer a thorough grounding in both computational design and cutting-edge technologies within parametric architecture, robotics, digital manufacturing and 3D printing for the construction industry. “We believe programs like this are the principal tools to produce a radical change shaping a real culture of innovation,” they tell me, “which will produce new machines applications, design strategies, manufacturing processes, urban applications and better citizens.”

Very often we focus on how things are made, forgetting why it is important to adopt new digital solutions […] innovation is produced only in experimental environments which allow to try, invent, fail.” Noumena