Navigant Research Blog

Drones or Data for Facilities Management?

Benjamin Freas — March 7, 2016

Luftbild einer Windkraftanlage mit Drohne Rotorblatt Wartung InspektionThe potential benefits of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have received a lot of attention as more and more applications have been identified. In addition to their continued use in warfare, drones are emerging as a useful tool for everything from wind turbine inspection to stopping poachers and spotting sharks. The seemingly infinite possibilities for drones have now extended to commercial buildings, where they can be used to provide visual inspections of hard-to-access spaces.

The use of drones by facilities managers seems like a smart move. Technicians no longer need dangerous ladders or expensive scaffolding to inspect the conditions of their facilities. However, drones are not the transformative change that facilities management needs. Physical inspection is the old way of thinking—it has been a necessity driven by technological limitations. Though drones now present the opportunity to enhance the process, the process itself is fundamentally flawed. While not as flashy, advances in building energy management systems (BEMSs) create the promise of technology’s ability to change the maintenance paradigm.

Data, Not Drones

The problem is not in drones, but rather, in a management strategy that relies on periodic visual inspection. Facilities managers will only find problems if they are looking for them, but that’s not a guarantee that these problems will be found before they affect operations. The inspector needs to know what to look for, the problem has to have symptoms that can be seen visually, and the inspections need to occur regularly.

Even if the manual process of drone inspection does properly identify problems, maintenance to address those problems still needs to be scheduled. The more sophisticated solution is to rely on building data. By understanding how a building operates and monitoring for deviations from that baseline, problems can be automatically identified. Moreover, fault detection from building data can be directly integrated into workforce management software so that the labor needed to address problems is actually performed.

Vendor Challenges

The challenge for vendors of building systems is that building owners and operators don’t have much of an appetite for reducing operating costs through capital investment. After all, paying for the installation and integration of sensors now may provide cost savings in the future. On the other hand, those savings might never be realized. Or that conversation could never happen because investment is focused on business operations to grow revenue rather than to cut the cost of operating the building.

As a result, the idea of inspections with a drone are promising because they do not require capital investment, yet produce some operational savings. They are also flashy new pieces of technology with lots of buzz. However, investment in BEMSs provides a meaningful alternative strategy to the management of operations and maintenance. What’s more, unlike drones, BEMSs have the ability to shift operations and maintenance procedures from a reactive process to proactive approach.

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