Drones, Artificial Intelligence and Building Inspections
By Professor Kim Lovegrove MSE RML, Chair of the IBQC, Senior Law Reformer, Senior Lawyer, Lovegrove & Cotton – Construction and Planning Lawyers
Drones and Onsite Building Inspections
One of the most time intensive and important elements of construction probity control is that of building compliance inspections. Inspections are attended by a high level of human input as they rely upon physical and visual scrutiny. This increases the chance of human error and with this risk.
In a deregulated fee environment, where in a number of jurisdictions inspections are carried out by private actors the remuneration for the task may not always be commensurate with a fee that will permit the task to be carried out with the appropriate level of rigour and attention. This can lead to deleterious outcomes, be they economic in the form of claims for compromised construction outcomes or public liability claims were negligent inspection culminates in injury.
It is the writer’s contention that the introduction of drone technology could have a far reaching impact on building control inspections. When discussing this with a building surveyor the other day, the surveyor said that it would have merit in that it would be more efficient and diminish human inputs. This is correct, but the greatest benefit in the writer’s view would be that the deployment of drones, in certain inspection contexts, could improve safety. The writer was not so excited by a diminishing of human inputs in light of the critical role that an inspector performs in safety control.
Accurate Measurements and Drone Technology
The balustrade compliance and height inspection construct immediately comes to mind as an area that would lend itself to drone inspections. One of the first public liability cases involving a serious injury to an individual where building surveyors and building inspectors were called to account was the Victorian case of Toomey v Scolaro Concrete Constructions Pty Ltd (in liq) and Others (no 2)  VSC 279.
In that case, a railing on a balcony on a building was 933.5 millimetres but the Building Code of Australia required 1000 millimetres. It was found that the balustrade height on the multi-unit development did not achieve the height stipulated in the Building Code of Australia. An individual fell over the balustrade and was seriously injured. The building surveyor and inspector along with other co-defendants were found liable. It was considered by Justice Eames that the building surveyor failed to examine the details of the plans for the building so as to identify the flaw.
It is submitted that if drone and advance camera and sensory technology was exploited, one could devise a uniform inspection protocol that would be more failsafe. For instance, drones could be programed to inspect sites by externally circling each level of a building and amongst other things measuring heights and lengths to determine building compliance. If the building comprised a non-compliant balustrade in respect of height a built-in alert mechanism could ‘red light’ and photo/record the non-compliant facet. The inspector or the building official would then be able to bring this to the attention of the contractor and issue an enforcement notice if need be. More importantly, the official could withhold issue of the occupancy permit pending rectification.
Remote Drone Building Inspection Capability
With regards to remote drone building inspections, the drone could fly to the remote site and carry out certain prescribed and drone-friendly inspections; a balustrade inspection programme, for instance, could be downloaded, and the drone deployed on the site with results subsequently transmitted back to the relevant building surveyor.
Algorithms could also be developed to deal potentially with aspects of swimming pool fence compliance, signage, fire egress distances and routes and the like.
It is conceded that only certain aspects of inspection could be dealt with by drones but where it is established that the technology could be generated to leverage off drone aptitudes and AI it could be a game changer in that the potential for human error, particular where eye for detail is paramount. In the case mentioned earlier, Toomey v Scolaro Concrete Constructions Pty Ltd (in liq) and Others (no 2)  VSC 279, Justice Eames stated:-
“A surveyor ….. is being called on to apply an expertise which condescends to examine the minutiae of plans, so as to detect error, and ambiguity which might reasonably produce error by those who will rely on those plans (at 311) subsequently.
Drone building inspection technology along with AI-based interactive modelling for building design and plans may better serve this aspiration of condescending to the minutiae than natural persons inspecting buildings or natural persons examining paper-based plans. Appropriate drone technology coupled with sophisticated AI-based design modelling would help minimise anomalies in respect of NCC compliance.
Currently, there is already advanced AI technology being deployed on large scale construction projects at the design phase in CAD software to assist with the highlighting of potential issues and non-compliance. These programs are much better at identifying faults in plans and models than the human eye. These programs and their advanced modelling powers could be leveraged off to program drones and their parameters of inspection.
Further, to ensure there is appropriate regulatory oversight in circumstances where governments were convinced that the use of such technology would improve probity control and thereby benefit the public, it would behove the governments to develop accreditation schemes for certain drone building inspection programs. In terms of paper trailing and improving uniform state-wide building compliance, drone applications could roll out a harmonised inspection protocol that would not be as susceptible to human error. Modules could also be incorporated into mandatory CPD courses for building officials so that they are trained in the use of the drone building inspection protocols.
There is significant movement afoot in the drone utility space, Andrew Heaton in an article Drone Operators Must be Selected Carefully published on the 29th of January 2012 in Sourceable, stated that “project owners who use drones for construction or other purposes are being advised ensure that their drone is registered and their operator holds the required accreditation……. the registration of commercial drones in now mandatory ( as of January 28)…. commercial drones may only be operated by those with suitable licences”. Drones already are being used to carry out some on-site inspections but by and large this is only occurring in the private sector setting, rather than as an extra limb of public building control.
It is ‘not a stretch’ to envisage a paradigm shift where drone building inspection technology is developed to improve holistic built quality outcomes. As stated above, there is plenty of advanced AI-base designed software in the marketplace that has been essential for the coordination of incredibly complex building projects during 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic which has allowed construction workers and design personnel to work remotely on collaborative tasks. These advanced models show we have the computing power there to model the vast intricacies of large-scale construction and incorporating parameters as to technical and regulatory compliance. Couple this with emerging advanced 3D imaging technology and the elements are all there. One hears already of drones being deployed to investigate and observe hazardous areas in buildings such as roofs.
It is the writer’s view that it is a matter of time before progressive jurisdictions develop such programmes and encourage the use of same and moreover once this occurs it is likely that regulations will be developed to accredit these programmes to ensure that that they are utilised and utilised safely.
In certain cases where flying drones are used, there will obviously have to be a regulatory interaction with the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and regulations on point.