Flying High Into the Sky
Unmanned Productions, LLC shows the benefits of drone technology, one project at a time
Unmanned Productions, LLC, an aerial photography and videography company located about 30 miles outside of Atlanta, was not originally formed to serve the engineering and construction industries. Instead, its founders—10-time Southeast Regional Emmy Award winner Kevin Wagner and CEO Dave Vest, a pioneer and innovator in the area of enterprise professional services and IT consulting—formed the company to “get in early” on the new application of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology in business and entertainment.
Formed initially as an aerial photography and videography firm for the film and television industry, Unmanned Productions had a “paradigm shift,” says Kurt Main, Unmanned Productions Partner and Vice President of Business Development. The company, based in Suwanee, Georgia, now provides drone services for architects, engineers, general contractors, utility and energy companies, and commercial real estate developers and managers.
“We provide thermal imaging, mapping, surveying, 3D modeling, roof and site inspections, progress photos and videos, safety inspections, and even footage for social media and marketing materials,” Kurt says. “On a construction site, drones can assist with pre-construction site review, aerial surveying and mapping, measurement of excavation depths and material stockpiles, monitoring and documenting job site progress, productivity, safety and security.” He pauses. “And, inspecting work that is difficult or dangerous for human inspectors to reach. That’s where I think drone technology is the most important.”
In 2014, when drones were first taking off commercially, most of Unmanned Productions’ work was primarily for commercial and TV production. “Kevin, who has over 30 years of entertainment experience, knew that the use of drones was going to explode in his industry,” Kurt says. David, the business mind behind the organization, had always envisioned moving into aerial survey and inspection opportunities as well. However, at this time municipalities and development companies hadn’t quite caught on to the potential of using drones.
Fast-forward five years. Kurt, a 20-year veteran of the construction industry, was conversing with his longtime friend Kevin about the current outlook in construction. It turned out to be a “conversation that would change my life,” Kurt says. Over the course of the conversation, Kevin told him about the current infrastructure of Unmanned Productions and their hopes of re-focusing the company efforts toward aerial survey and inspection.
“With my background, I knew there was an upward trend and widening acceptance of using drones on a construction site,” says Kurt, “and I thought we’d make a great team.
“Kevin and Dave eventually asked if I would be interested in leading the company in a new direction. I jumped at the opportunity. It was a match made in heaven.”
Kurt took off running. “As I began researching the latest drone technology and understanding the needs of the construction industry, I immediately saw a huge opportunity for growth,” Kurt says. “From site surveys to advanced thermography, to roof inspections to health and safety surveys, the possibilities were endless. I had to just get us flying on our new course.
“Because I am an OSHA-certified construction manager, safety always comes first. To that end, all of our missions are flown by reputable, professional pilots across the southeastern United States. And, all of Unmanned Productions’ pilots are FAA Part 107 certified, and several pilots are Level 1 Thermography certified,” Kurt explains. “We also hire what we call ‘observers.’ These professionals are on-site during each flight to manage safety risks, provide notice to nearby residents when necessary and obtain consent from workers, site visitors and neighbors when there is the potential for security and privacy issues.
“We use only the latest in drone technology—DJI and Autel drones equipped with a variety of state-of-the-art FLIR and 4K cameras,” he explains. “These drones and their accompanying software systems can provide convenient and time-saving desktop or mobile device access to job site conditions and help facilitate rapid assessment and response to developments in the field.”
Kurt is adamant that drone technology can be a “force multiplier” before, during and after construction. “Before breaking ground, our clients can use data taken by drones to assist the design team in understanding the project site, orienting structures and locating utilities,” Kurt says. “With the right software, users can integrate imagery and data into CAD, BIM (building information modeling) or other 3D models. Or clients can use drones in conjunction with other tools, such as land-based 3D laser surveying equipment and inventory tracking devices, to have a better understanding of the project site.”
During construction, drones are equally useful. “We can assist owners and contractors in inspecting long horizontal projects, such as power lines, pipelines and rail lines, as well as tall vertical structures, including bridges and high-rises,” he says.
Kurt adds that contractors and owners can use imagery and data collected by drones to visualize the progress of work, monitor workers and equipment location, and assess and document the impact of weather, force majeure events or accidents on the job site. “We use our drones to inspect safety cables on tall structures. We have the ability to zoom in on safety cables and make sure that they are all attached properly. We are able to inspect scaffolding to make sure the braces were all in place and the scaffolding properly secured to the building,” Kurt says. “We can quickly assess damage and conditions after a severe storm, which is so much better than having to send someone into a potentially unsafe environment.”
Finally, drones can provide benefits to finished projects. “In addition to GPS and high-resolution cameras, our drones can be equipped with lidar or thermal, moisture or gas sensors,” says Kurt. “This imagery can be useful to construction counsel in post-project dispute resolution and for owners to promote sales and leasing of a completed project. The imagery can be used to determine energy loss and moisture content on a roof that is difficult to capture.”
Unmanned Productions has garnered attention for its work with many high-profile brands, including Embassy Suites by Hilton, Halcyon and the U.S. Army. But it is the day-to-day opportunities to work with general contractors, architects, real estate developers, utility and energy companies, and engineering firms—such as Contour Engineering—that makes the propellers turn at Unmanned Productions.
“The team at Contour Engineering is innovative and instantly recognizes the use of drone technologies across multiple projects,” Kurt says. “We have done multiple projects with Contour, including a thermal scan of a Sears and JCPenney roof at a shopping mall and a scan of a local high school that is currently under multiphase construction.”
Like a good number of engineering firms, Contour Engineering would have an engineer walk the building’s roof at night with a handheld thermal camera. “They would send someone up about 30 minutes after sunset to check the roof for thermal leaks. Then, the engineer would take the notes back to the office and map out the locations,” Kurt says. “Not only was it time-intensive, but it could be potentially dangerous. But now, we send a drone up and do the same inspection in half the time. It’s pretty amazing.”
He adds that the company hasn’t left its high-end production capabilities behind. “One of the benefits of our experience is that we can turn photos and videos collected for technical purposes into great marketing collateral,” he says, adding that the company still has an eye for artistic design. “At the end of the day, drones can save time and reduce risk.” He adds, “The sky’s the limit.”