How to Improve Bidding, Estimates with Earthwork Software in Five Steps

To track earthwork quantities well, you need the best tools. That means the best machines to move dirt and the best earthwork software to manage and measure it.

When it comes to boosting your bottom line and productivity, earthwork software for estimating and bidding is essential. That, coupled with drone surveying, can help save you money and increase productivity.

But if your company is like most in the construction, mining, or aggregates industry, they’re underdigitized. So how do you find the best software for your needs? And use it to make better business decisions, bids, and estimates?

bulldozer on site construction

Today, we’ll be covering how to get your company up and running with earthwork software and drone surveying:

  1. Picking the best drone hardware for data capture

  2. Choosing the best earthwork software for your business

  3. The differences between self-processing drone data and outsourcing it


Plus, we’ll dive deeper into how to use it for better estimates and bids:

  1. How to improve bids with earthwork estimating software

  2. Bonus case study: Get pre-bid topos without flying twice


How to pick the best drone hardware for data capture

Those new to drone surveying for earthwork tracking tend to put a lot of emphasis on the drone itself. But, for the most part, a drone is a drone is a drone. It’s a vessel for the camera and, if you have a RTK-enabled drone, it’s a method to better geotag photos.

Drone takeoff on a construction site

We recommend the Phantom 4 RTK, as used in the Propeller PPK solution. The workflow couldn’t get any simpler:

  • Plan out your drone’s flight on the flight planning app
  • Find a safe, open area on your site to launch the drone
  • Set up an AeroPoint on the ground nearby and turn it on
  • Hit Go on your drone flight

ground control point for ppk drone

There are edge cases related to site size that might require a different setup, but you still don’t need to turn to expensive, custom-built drones. Using multiple Phantoms or flying multiple flights to cover a single large site gets the job done.

(If you want to learn more about the difference between traditional drone surveying and Propeller PPK, check out our post: How It Works: PPK vs. GCP Drone Surveying.)

But it’s how you use your data that makes all the difference—that’s where earthwork software comes in. With it, you can measure cut/fill volumes, balance a site, get pre-bid topos, and so much more.

Construction cut fill (progress report)


Picking the best earthwork software for your business

Figuring out exactly what software you need and which vendor to purchase from can be tricky. Let’s break down five of the savviest questions you can and should ask when shopping around.


1. How do you ensure the accuracy of maps and models?

Accuracy is the number-one priority, so make sure your vendor understands why ground control is so important.

Surveyors overwhelmingly agree that even when using high-end onboard RTK/PPK GPS you still need a method of ground control or authentication for the drone data you collect.


2. Will this software create another “data silo” in my business?

Ensure the program complements existing workflows and makes your day-to-day easier. You don’t want to buy something that totally disrupts the way you work right now.

That means you need the capability to import, export, and manipulate your data to suit your unique business needs.

Sharing measurements gif Propeller


3. Are local site calibrations supported?

If you operate on a local grid, make sure your earthwork software supports local site calibrations.

Without that capability, you’d need someone in-house with the time and skills to convert all the drone data. For example, Propeller supports local coordinate systems, so all your data is delivered in your site’s own “language.”


4. How is data-processing quality ensured? Tell me about the support team.

Ask about how “automatic” processing actually works. If there’s a problem with your dataset, how will it be identified and communicated? Who can you speak with in this scenario and what are their qualifications? What are the hours for customer support?


5. How can I be confident in the measurements I make?

A common concern about drone data adoption is the predictability and repeatability of measurements.

If vendors are slow to provide accuracy metrics, or platform tools don’t easily allow you to validate your own measurements, you should assume that surveys aren’t accurate and measurements won’t be reliable.


The Difference Between Self-Processing Surveys and Outsourcing Them

Now that you know the questions to ask when shopping around, there’s one more decision to make. To self-process your drone data or outsource it? Choosing between the two is a big decision, and there are advantages to both.

Drone solutions for construction and surveyors

Here we’ll outline the differences between a typical self-processed workflow and what happens when you outsource to a company like Propeller.


What processing your own data in-house looks like

Self-processing photogrammetry data can be the norm for many new drone surveying users, and for those who demand hands-on manipulation of their data during processing.

The DIY approach can be appealing. When users compare between self-processing and a photogrammetry processor, they find:

  • A lower up-front cost (excluding staff and hardware costs).
  • More control over how results are processed.
  • Data lives on your computer and not “in the cloud,” which is a requirement for some sensitive worksites or contractors.

Photogrammetry for drone surveys


With that said, those who use a self-processing setup generally run into a few challenges:

  1. They cannot scale easily. Personnel training and additional hardware is required, often expensive.
  2. Their processing-power needs grow and a good photogrammetry computer can cost upwards of $10,000.
  3. Processing requires a lot of computing power, effectively disabling that machine for other tasks while it’s running.

What outsourcing your data processing looks like

When companies outsource, they see a number of benefits from having a company like Propeller do the heavy lifting. These include:

  • The ability to quickly, easily scale drone programs because there aren’t any additional employees to hire or computers to buy for processing.
  • All survey data is reviewed and validated by professionals. We have a team of GIS experts, along with proprietary technology, to process every survey with all the right checks and balances.
  • Time to use their data to make better decisions, instead of processing it.
  • Expensive and powerful computers aren’t required since all processing is done in the cloud.


How to Improve Bids with Earthwork Estimating Software

Since we’ve covered how to get the best software, let’s see how it works in action. We’ll focus on how using it can improve the bidding process.

Photogrammetry for drone surveying on worksite

When placing a bid, an estimator has to consider materials, required labor and equipment, quotes from subcontractors and suppliers, and overall quality. Estimates must be competitive and maximize profitability—a difficult balance to strike.

When it comes down to it, getting your own surveys is the best way to trust the data. This is where drone surveying and earthwork software can help in a major way. You can collect accurate data in less time to produce competitive high-quality submissions.

So, how do you do it?


1. Set up ground control for your drone surveys

To ensure your drone survey data is accurate, you need appropriate ground control. There are two options:

  • Traditional ground control. (Features or marked points recorded with a rover by a qualified surveyor.)
  • Smart ground control, like AeroPoints.

If you work on multiple sites, you’ll probably want to use smart ground control, so you don’t have to rely on anyone else to get your data.

After ground control is set up, perform your drone flight.


2. Turn that drone data into a 3D site survey

Once you’ve flown your drone and processed your data, you get a measurable 3D site survey. This intuitive visualization lets you to have visual conversations with prospective clients and your own team. It can also clean up data for better useability.

For example, in Propeller, removing vegetation, vehicles, buildings, and other obstructions above bare earth takes just one click on the corresponding filter. (If you’re processing it yourself, this is where a lengthy process of trial and error begins.)

terrain filtering on the Propeller Platform
Propeller’s filters at work removing a conveyor belt. The right panel shows an original image used to build the model on the left. Contour/Heatmap has been been switched on to show the change (or lack thereof) in elevation.


3. Quickly Calculate Bids with Design Surfaces and Linework Overlays

If a site’s design surface is accurately georeferenced, you can load it into the Propeller and do a comparison against your initial topo to see how much you’d need to bring in or take out to hit the final design. Knowing these exact values up front means you can better balance your site.

For example, in the image below, you can see 366 fill cubes are needed. With that number, you can work on balancing your site by getting some or all of that material from another part of the site.

cut/fill on site


4. Present Your Bids Visually and Have the Data to Back Them Up

No one is going to trust bids they can’t make sense of. Earthwork estimating software provides your clients with real-world imagery they can understand, and simplifies reporting and analysis.

In Propeller, you can export PDF and CSV reports on all your survey data. These provide a paper trail for who did what work when and a useful reference when meeting with your team or clients.

Construction gridded cut fill (progress report)

Further, you can also grant platform permission to a client so they can see the 3D survey in action themselves.

Putting all these steps together, you not only have a way to place better bids faster, but also a plan for how you’ll track work once you win the job.


Bonus case study: Get pre-bid topos without flying twice

Now that you understand the basics of picking out drone hardware and earthwork software, and how you can improve your estimates, we’ll dive a little deeper into how you actually get those pre-bid topos yourself.

Pre-bid topos are on most contractors’ nice-to-have list, but nobody wants to waste a survey crew’s day on a job they’re only bidding on.

After all, if you spend time doing a pre-bid topo and don’t get the contract, what was it for? But if you could get up-to-date as-found topo, you’d have an edge over competitors.

Propeller can provide you with an accurate preconstruction topo that doesn’t mean sinking more time than you want into the task. It’s simpler than you think. Fly a site once, pre-bid, and have all the information you need.


Get your pre-bid topo quickly without hiring a third-party

This is just what Phoenix-based Buesing Corp. found to be most effective when doing their own pre-bid topos.

“With a drone flight, we can go into a site before a bid or during precon and say with confidence how much dirt is there,” said Buesing Corp.’s GPS Manager Rio Byman, who frequently oversees bidding and site topos. This process takes a couple of hours at most.

Before using drone surveying, Buesing would typically pay for grid spacing from 25- to 100-feet using traditional surveying methods, depending on the site.

land surveying on a construction site

“For a flat site, about 100 acres, it could take us two hours to do a precon bid topo. Maybe $1,800 for the survey,” said Byman. But these numbers depend on the site’s accessibility. “If the terrain is rough and if the site hasn’t been grubbed yet, it could take us two to three days and around $5K to 6K to hit the same size area.”

Time and cost can be a problem, but the grid itself can also introduce problems on a new job. Depending on spacing, it’s sometimes possible to miss important breaklines and features or additional dirt hidden under vegetation. In such cases, surveying by drone might be a better option.

A ground topo captured by drone is extremely dense, as millions of points are gathered in photogrammetric drone surveying. Without that kind of detail, it “can lead to time-consuming disputes over how much dirt was on site, and from there it’s word against word,” cautions Byman.  


“Now that we have Propeller, we fly every job before we even touch it.”

Using drones to capture precon topos and earthwork software to process the data Buesing Corp. saves money on prebid planning—and cuts time after they win, too.

Before using drone surveying, Buesing would have to move a base and rover off a different job to do a precon topo for a bid. “With the AeroPoints,” said Byman, “we eliminate the need to have guys shooting in targets or points, so it’s a huge convenience.”

Drone used to survey a quarry

Usually, after you win a bid, you have to re-topo the site to get data in the site’s coordinate reference system.

But with AeroPoints, you don’t have to, and here’s how:


1. Get your precon topo before making a bid

Locate an area on site that will remain undisturbed between your precon topo and the start of the job. Place a pin or easily identifiable marker in the ground here.

setting up ground control points using Propeller AeroPoints
Placing an AeroPoint over a known survey mark.

When you fly, center one AeroPoint over this pin or marker. Fly as normal, ensuring that the AeroPoint is on for at least 45 minutes while your drone is up in the air.

Process your data in the Propeller Platform using a published coordinate system.

AeroPoint survey buesing Corp.

This allows you to design your bid with up-to-date takeoff quantities to know:

  • How much dirt needs to be moved to meet design
  • Where it needs to be moved
  • How you’ll move it


2. Update your site topo after you win the bid

Once you’ve won the bid, go back to that marked point and set up your local site calibration using a rover. Simply survey the exact center of the top of that pin with your rover in the site’s local grid.

This establishes a known point for use with subsequent drone topos that won’t be distrubed by any future earthmoving.

Then, using the newly shot-in coordinates of your pin, reprocess that original AeroPoint survey using the known point method for local site calibrations.

Local grid to known point precon topo Portal screenshot

Reprocessing in this way means you don’t have to topo the site again because you already have an original surface to track job progress from.

And that survey is accurate down to 1/10ft with Propeller PPK, so you can run, or verify, your billing quantities from subsequent surveys you fly while working the project.


Want to learn more about how Propeller’s earthwork software can help with your earthwork projects? Contact us today.



Read more:

Drone Surveying Stockpile Measurement Tools and Methods
3cm Landfill Liner Breach Detected with Accurate As-Builts, Drone Data Visualization
Three Ways Paving Contractors Use Propeller, Drone Surveying for Road Building

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