Using Drones to Track Jobsite Materials

Eyes in the sky equipped with RFID readers can tell you what’s where.

Contractors are using drones to survey jobsites, measure job progress and inspect their work. Now you can add one more use to the list of current or soon-to-be drone applications: tracking materials.  

RELATED: Using Drones to Manage Your Jobsite from 300 Feet in the Air

Some of the larger construction companies, particularly those in the gas and oil industry, have asked their materials fabricators to add radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to the pipes they supply. Most of the pipes are individually tagged, since there can be hundreds or thousands of unique pipes in a big refinery, and building crews want to be able to find a particular pipe right when they need it.

When trucks transport these pipes to a jobsite, a tag reader, usually at the gate, sends notice of their arrival to a materials management system. But even tagged material can be easy to lose when laydown sites are hundreds of acres in size, as they often are in megaprojects.

A mobile reader, mounted to a truck or even a forklift, can scan tags as the vehicle goes about its normal travels on the site. The problem is that the trucks may not get into all the areas where materials are stored, and/or may be too far away from an RFID tag to get an accurate reading. (Active RFID tags are battery powered and can transmit information up to 320 feet. Passive RFID tags, which are less expensive, have a maximum range of 32 feet.)

That’s where drones come in. Intelliwave Technologies Inc., an RFID solutions provider, has been testing the use of drones equipped with RFID readers for materials tracking.

“With the drone we can fly in a pattern and get better coverage and faster updates on locations,” said Matt Johnson, a systems engineer with Intelliwave. “On many projects, 30 percent of cost overruns from materials management are due to problems in locating material or losing materials. So being able to locate everything means that you save a substantial amount of money over the project lifecycle.”

Johnson said drone sweeps could happen two or three times a week, depending on how much activity is going on at the site.  But drones aren’t going to replace the vehicle-mounted RFID readers; those may be able to pick up some RFID tags that the drone misses, and vice versa. Plus, the trucks and forklifts can go to work even if the weather isn’t favorable for drone flights. 

Since RFID tags remain in place even after a structure is built, drones with readers can come in handy for maintenance, too. For example, if a pipe manufacturer discovers a defect in a certain batch of pipes, a drone can find the relevant pipes, even if they are 100 feet in the air.

“The additional cost of a UAV drone pays for itself almost instantly in the fact that you can have better site coverage and locate your materials more easily."

Matt Johnson, Intelliwave systems engineer

It’s still the larger contractors working on huge construction projects that are testing drones and RFID tags to track materials. At present, contractors on even mid-sized projects may be deterred from using them by the hassle involved in getting flight approvals and by the need to hire a qualified pilot.

But Johnson expects that more contractors will adopt the drone and RFID technology over the next several years because they will see the potential return on investment.

“The additional cost of a UAV drone pays for itself almost instantly in the fact that you can have better site coverage and locate your materials more easily,” Johnson said. “I think it just takes a few companies to get it started, and then it becomes more mainstream.”

Freelance writer Mary Lou Jay writes about business and technical developments in a variety of industries. She has been covering residential and commercial construction for more than 25 years.

Image Credit: Aran Hakim /

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