Drone Program ROI: How Grade Tech Saved $1.7M (and Counting)

If you’re wondering exactly how to quantify the return on investment (ROI) of drones in construction, you’re not alone. It’s one thing to know that drones save time and money. It’s another thing to have the data to prove it.

That data has historically been hard to come by, at least in part because digitization of worksites is still a fairly new idea. Before drones like the DJI Phantom 4 RTK hit the market, digitization was either expensive or unreliable—or both. Adoption was low, and there wasn’t much data available to serve as a baseline.

Even now, accessibility to real-time worksite data is unfamiliar to contractors who use traditional surveying methods. Without any basis for comparison, the numbers don’t always resonate.

Today, we’re sharing one customer’s very real ROI data as inspiration. Whether you’re brand new to drone surveying or have had a program for years, you’ll see that the impact of drone surveying on your revenue is far greater than you might think.

This article was inspired by a presentation we recently gave with our customer, Grade Tech Power Services at DJI’s 2020 AirWorks Conference. You can watch the full presentation below.

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How do you calculate drone program ROI, anyway?

It’s tempting to compare drone surveys to traditional surveys, but the two are like apples and oranges.

If you’re only comparing the total cost per survey, you’re thinking too small. Don’t just think about the cost per survey. Think about what a drone program will save you across an entire project lifecycle. 

A good drone program has three key benefits:

  • Accuracy
  • Ease of use
  • Affordability

The Phantom 4 RTK is just as accurate—if not more so—than any other hardware on the market today. It doesn’t just achieve accuracy to 1/10 ft (3cm). It’s easy to operate, something that can’t be said for most of the alternatives.

You don’t want to pull in a specialist every time you fly a site. You want to use the crew already on the ground. That’s why this drone doesn’t require extensive training or setup. Just point and shoot.

Of course, ease of use and affordability go hand in hand. Technology that’s easy to use will get used, making your investment worthwhile. Plain and simple. And since just about anyone on your job site can fly it, you won’t have to delay schedules to bring in a qualified pilot, either.

Drone programs aren’t just quicker and easier than traditional surveys (in pretty much every way). . They also make management of the entire project easier. When you’re calculating drone program ROI, make sure to factor in these ripple effects.

Here are some examples to get the wheels turning on how a drone program might revolutionize your business.

Takeoff reporting and progress tracking

Capturing the initial state of a site is important on any job. In one memorable case for Grade Tech, it made all the difference

takeoff report roi

On a work site in Idaho, they flew a drone to capture takeoff reporting and received a fully processed data set using Propeller’s PPK workflow within 24 hours. As it turned out, a neighboring property wanted to use their excess material as fill.

progress tracking drone data roi

With just 30 minutes of analysis on the Propeller platform, Grade Tech had identified the balance point—and exactly how much material they could move just across the road. Without the help of the drone, they would have moved ⅔ of the material miles away before they discovered that the neighboring property could take all of it.

Thanks to the drone and access to real-time survey data, Grade Tech saved $90k on that single job.

Resolve conflicts—or, better yet, prevent them

Drones don’t resolve conflicts or keep earthwork projects on schedule by themselves, but they do make it easy.

Many times, project disputes arise over the volume of material moved. A client will provide you with an estimate for how much dirt you’ll need to move for their requested grade. But those estimates aren’t always accurate. When you’re on the ground and doing the work, you may find that you’re moving a lot more than expected.

A drone program allows you share photorealistic 3D models with everyone involved to prove how much work has been done—whether it’s your crew’s work, or someone else’s. These models are easy to read and understand for anyone, not just CAD professionals.

Meaning that you don’t just win arguments. You make sure they don’t happen in the first place.

The hidden drone ROI factor: completely eliminate downtime

Tell us if this sounds familiar. Too often, a project schedule is created that simply ensures your crew’s presence on a worksite, regardless of whether you can actually do any work there. The costly downtime ends up coming out of your bottom line, So you watch time and money drain away while materials are staged and other contractors finish their work, so you can finally do yours.

Grade Tech has eliminated almost all downtime by using their Phantom 4 RTK drone to fly sites 1-2 days before they arrive. If a site isn’t ready for them, they have the ortho to prove it. They have easy-to-read 3D models that can be shared with anyone. Since it’s hard to argue with photographic evidence, it’s both an insurance policy and a time-saver.

Translated to real numbers, Grade Tech saves $3500 per day of avoided downtime. Now, they don’t feel like they’re always trying to keep up, or prove that they’re on schedule. They have all the data right at their fingertips.

Gain a crew without hiring anyone

When projects run smoothly, you gain labor that would have otherwise been wasted. Eliminating downtime means that you can send your crews where they’re needed, and do more in less time. According to Rory Hall, Grade Tech’s operations manager, they effectively went from having four crews to four-and-a-half. All without hiring a soul.

As a result, Grade Tech earned $1.5 million in additional revenue in just over a year of using Propeller.

What could a good drone program ROI mean for increased efficiency in your business?

Drones can’t solve every problem on a work site, but they enable huge strides that compound over time. They’re also more accurate, affordable, and easy to use now than ever before.

So the real question is: can you afford not to use them?

Find out the ROI potential for a drone program on your sites. Contact us for more information.


We’re happy to show you how Propeller can power your worksite, and boost productivity. Simply request a demo now.

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