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Which Cities Are Leading the Way for Drone Building Inspections?

In an age where technology intersects with urban development, the sky is no longer just an expanse of blue above us—it's a realm of untapped potential. Drones, once reserved for military reconnaissance and hobbyist aerial photography, are driving the development of modern cityscapes and transforming the way we approach building inspections and urban planning.


Across the globe, from the gleaming metropolis of Singapore to the bustling streets of New York City and the visionary landscape of Dubai, cities are harnessing the power of drones to revolutionize structural surveys and ensure the safety and sustainability of their built environments. In this article, we embark on a journey through these pioneering cities to uncover the cutting-edge initiatives and innovative approaches being used to improve building inspections.


5. Singapore: The Periodic Facade Inspection Regime



drone flight over Singapore
Photo credit: ake1150 / 123RF

In 2022, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) introduced its Periodic Facade Inspection (PFI) regime. Why?


“As buildings age, their façades experience wear and tear.  A façade inspection regime will enable early detection of tell-tale signs of deteriorating façade materials and its connections, allowing the building owner to carry out repairs before it fails“.

With prior approval from the BCA, drones are used to inspect high-rise buildings, bridges, and other structures to identify defects and ensure compliance with safety regulations. The process involves an inspection of the entire building's facade as well as a 10% close-range survey of each elevation by either a Professional Engineer or registered Architect. 


Singaporean authorities serve a notice to building owners when an inspection is required but the general rule is that any building over 13 meters high and more than 20 years old must be inspected every 7 years. 


The use of drones and infrared surveys is permitted by the BCA with prior permission, assuming local laws and licensing are followed. Singapore prides itself on innovation and the addition of drone-derived data can only help to protect its beautiful cityscape and assist in the development of the ‘best-planned city in the world’.


4. Hong Kong: Mandatory Building Inspection Scheme


drone shot of Hong Kong
Photographer: Andy Yeung

In February, Hong Kong’s Buildings Department announced plans to make 360° drone building inspections mandatory for high-risk buildings. Similarly to Singapore’s PFI, the Mandatory Building Inspection Scheme (MBIS) serves building owners with statutory notices which require a Registered Inspector to carry out an inspection and complete a report of repair works to ‘common parts, external walls and projections or signboards of the buildings’.


As early as 2003, Hong Kong identified that its aging buildings posed a threat to the public. There are around 39,000 private buildings in Hong Kong with around 13,000 of these being 30 or more years old, many in poor states of repair. In 2012 Hong Kong introduced the MBIS to tackle the problem of building neglect but recently started looking at drones as a way to make building inspections faster, safer and more repeatable. 


But it’s not just older buildings which are under scrutiny. Hong King’s Housing Department recently started using drones and AI to inspect the external walls of new buildings too. 


“With support of artificial intelligence (AI), drones are able to analyze the conditions of external walls by sequencing, categorizing and examining the images, thus allowing us to identify anomalies such as defects or cracks on the surface of building structures, cracking or flaking of paint, and problems of condition of pipes and aluminum windows. The site supervisory staff review and validate the findings, and instruct contractors accurately to follow up and rectify the defects.”

3. New York City - Facade Inspection Safety Programme


drone flight over New York City
Image: RAND Engineering & Architecture

As we discussed in our recent blog, New York City recently took the unprecedented step of allowing drone flights within the city for the specific purpose of carrying out building inspections. In 2013, New York City introduced the Facade Inspection Safety Programme or FISP, an initiative which saw every building over 6 stories become subject to regular structural inspections. 


In a densely populated area such as Manhattan, manual building inspections present many challenges. Access for boom lifts and other machinery can be limited, scaffolding causes issues for business owners and pedestrians and rope access is costly and dangerous. In the summer of 2023 New York City Mayor Eric Adams introduced new rules to make FISP inspections easier, safer and cheaper to conduct - with permission, drones could now be flown in the city area for specific tasks such as building inspections, infrastructure inspections and capital project planning. 


Using drones for building inspections will mean that New York City builds a permanent record of its modern and historic buildings, allowing for enhanced change detection and preventative maintenance of one of the world’s most famous skylines.


2. Chicago's Exterior Walls Program


BoA Tower, Chicago drone image
BoA Tower, Chicago www.thorntontomasetti.com

Another US city leading the way for drone inspections is the 'Windy City' - Chicago. Chicago's Department of Buildings categorises their facade inspections slightly differently. Since 1996, the Exterior Walls Program states that any building over 80 feet high must the walls inspected every 2 years. But there's also a separate mandate for any building with exposed metal elements such as balconies, antennas, canopies, fire escapes and even flag poles.


The code also states that more in-depth 'critical examinations' are required at four, eight or 12 years, depending on the building classification which had previously been conducted using a 24-foot-long scaffolding per elevation. Again, a licensed architect or structural engineer is required to carry out the inspection.


Companies such as scientific and engineering consulting firm, Thornton Tomasetti are now leveraging drones to make adherence to Chicago's building inspection programs faster, safer and easier to repeat and using AI to identify issues - meaning that preventative maintenance can be carried out more swiftly.


Other cities in the US with similar facade inspection programs include Boston, Cincinnati, Detroit, Jersey City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Louis.


Pushing the Envelope for Drone Building Inspections....


These examples demonstrate the growing application of drone technology in structural surveys across different regions of the world where the endgame is the same - safer, faster and more repeatable building inspections which will improve public safety. 


As drone technology continues to advance and regulations evolve, we can expect to see even more widespread adoption of drones for various building inspection purposes globally. Yet there’s already one city that has pushed the envelope even further….


1. Dubai - The Dubai Horizon System & Digital Twin Project


drone photo of Dubai building inspections
Image Credit: Getty Images / Britus

As a city known for pushing the boundaries of architecture and construction perhaps it’s no surprise that Dubai is leading the way to promote the use of drones in AEC. In 2022, Dubai Municipality announced the launch of its Dubai Horizon System, a project which would see all of Dubai’s buildings, assets and amenities mapped with drones to create perhaps the most ambitious digital twin project to date - an entire digital replica of the city.


The aim of the Horizon System originally had nothing to do with the structural integrity and safety of Dubai’s buildings - the project aims to create an advanced air traffic control system to plan routes and designate landing spots for drone deliveries of parcels, medication and food as early as this year.


As well as the Dubai Horizon System, Dubai Municipality has also been using drones and AI to detect building violations. Dubai has strict building codes which even cover the colour of a building and position and size of architectural features such as balconies. 


"With drones, we can detect from an aerial vertical perspective as well as a horizontal view if there are any violations, for example, if there is a crack on an AC unit or the colour of a building is not as per the code, we are using AI to help us detect these." We are able to catch violations instantly. In addition to the drones, we are also using panoramic AI images to spot issues. This helps inspectors focus on problem buildings rather than doing random checks." 

Maitha Al Nuaimi, Director of Geographic Information Systems Centre, Dubai via khaleejtimes.com


Conclusion


When it comes to urban infrastructure, drones hold the key to total awareness and future possibilities. Dubai’s ambitious Horizon System proves the scope for drone-derived data to power the future of communities and the safety of residents and it’s only a matter of time before other cities look to make digital twins of their own important assets and eventually their entire infrastructure.








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