Beyond Flying Cars: UAVs is Architecture

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Beyond Flying Cars: UAVs is Architecture
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone usually looks like a quadracopter, a helicopter with four rotors which counter rotate so that the vehicle can hover in place.

This marvel of miniaturisation in technology and convergence of electronics has allowed for the creation of drones which weigh half a kilo, can fly for 20-30 minutes and come equipped with a high definition camera which can take panoramic videos and quality images of your surroundings, or even ‘dronies’, that is selfie photographs taken by a camera equipped drone. Still, the technology is in its infancy, with a huge potential for customisation and utilisation in a variety of sectors, from product deliveries to remote sensing of scenes of catastrophes, to personal flying vehicles. 

Within these developments, we expect that architecture and the built environment will change radically in the years to come due to this fascinating technology. Firstly, the basics on building entrances and exits would change - no longer would you need to think of a building as a place that you enter through the ground floor. Being able to land on the top floor of a building and enter from above could revolutionise how we think of architectural functional arrangements, but also safe exits in the case of danger, a classic problem in towers in the case of earthquakes and fires. Drones could provide safe passage to building users in cases of emergencies from tall buildings. 

Within everyday life, drones could also radically change the way we perform package deliveries, transportation in general, the way our cities operate, along with two or three of traditional businesses along the way. In package delivery with drones, the UK is home to some of the best companies and innovations globally. Although many of the ideas remain untested in the market, the implementation of these innovative solutions would change how we as architects design and perceive facades. Imagine buildings with openable facades which allow package delivery and dispatch in an automated manner. No more waiting for the courier to arrive with that package you have been waiting for so long. When you return to home from work your package is already there in the living room waiting for you. 

Of course drones are already changing the way we are monitoring construction processes. It now takes half a day to fully survey a construction site and automatically generate a 3D model of the construction site using a process call photogrammetry, i.e accurately measuring things through photographs. A client can ask for frequent updates on construction and these can take place now with the drone, in a semi-automated manner. Efficiencies on the construction site can be found more easily or progress can be measured in a more efficient manner with images from above. In certain cases the generated 3D models can be compared with the initial prototypical models built using building information modelling and directly compare progress in each construction phase.

Within a certain timeframe I would also expect drones, in the same manner that they will change package delivery, to also revolutionise certain aspects of the construction process itself. Transport of lightweight kit could be automated allowing a swarm of drones to assemble a building or parts of a building.

Aberdeen is the perfect testing ground for this type of technology. Living in Aberdeen, the sound of a jet aircraft or personnel helicopter flying above is a usual part of the urban soundscape. Aberdeen boasts the busiest heliport in Europe, due to its oil and gas industrial base and the fact that it houses a lot of the crews that work on the oil rigs, being ferried night and day to the oil extracting platforms to work. As such the city is used to a busy sky, and the frequency of flights in Aberdeen would make the city the perfect urban environment for testing drones in various functions, from remote sensing to construction. 

At the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and the Built Environment we are developing our expertise in using UAVs / Drones in architecture and the built environment. Students in the Architectural Technology course are already using 3D models generated by drone and photogrammetry across all three years.

A dissertation has been written on the convergence of Business Information Modelling (BIM) and UAVs and the student is getting ready to participate in the innovation competition RGU has launched, with the ambition to launch her own company in the future.

In research we are developing a platform for drone remote sensing which will complement the 3D visualisation capacities of the RGU digital hub with its thermal imaging sensors, state of the art laser scanners and virtual reality (VR) installations. We expect that the expertise the School has in creating 3D models, in combination with this new technology, will propel the research and knowledge capacity of the school to new heights. 

In MSc Architectural Design Innovation the educational theme for the next two years is ‘Air’, an allusion to the fact that the students of the master's course will research speculatively and deeply into the effects and possibilities UAVs will bring to the world of architecture. After setting the foundations into the relationship of the theme of Air with other expertise the school holds in low energy design, urbanism, project management and digital design, the students will explore, in a studio format, speculative projects that will enhance their design capabilities. We expect these projects will be some of the first, globally, that explore this promising technology in the field of architecture. 

By Theo Dounas, Learning Excellence Leader – RGU’s Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and Built Environment

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