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Piling Canada Q4 is here!

A sky-high idea that’s really taken off

By Jim Timlick

An upstart Hamilton, Ont.-based company is using some sky-high technology to help provide construction crews with a more accurate picture of the work they do on deep foundation construction sites.

Enaeria uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to perform a variety of functions on construction sites, including visual inspections, surveying and mapping and monitoring. The technology can provide data on everything from the precise location of an individual pile to changes in volume measurement.

Since being founded by partners Daniel Matzeg and Zachary Feld just over two years ago, the company has worked on a host of construction projects including shopping malls, manufacturing plants and sports complexes.

Enaeria is still a relative newcomer to the heavy construction industry, but the small firm has quickly made a big name for itself. It’s already worked with GeoSolv Design/Build as part of their geopier rammed aggregate pier installation project that helps reinforce ground materials such as loose sand and soft silt. The partners have also worked closely with the Association of Ontario Land Surveyors on numerous topographical survey projects.

Still, Matzeg acknowledges there was some initial skepticism when he and Feld were first getting their venture off the ground.

“Sometimes people would say, ‘We’ve done things the traditional way forever and we’re going to keep doing it that way,’ and you can’t change their minds and that’s fine,” he said. “Now a lot of people are really pushing for drones. They’re saying drones are the wave of the future, they want to use them. Once they bring them on a project…they really see the benefits of using them.”

One of the biggest benefits of using drones, according to Matzeg, is the amount of man hours a company can save. With traditional technology, a surveyor must go out and physically put a target on every single pile and often must contend with obstructions and moving equipment. Those logistical challenges are suddenly removed from the equation with a drone.

“We come in and we don’t even have to be on the actual site. The drone flies over … and then we go back on our computer and run an analysis. Depending on the scope of the work, we’ll have the results within the next one to three days,” said Matzeg.

Drones can also provide contractors access sites that might be too inhospitable to inspect first-hand and promote safety since companies don’t need to have boots on the ground in busy, high-traffic areas.

UAV technology can also deliver a significant cost savings since drones can gather necessary data without requiring a construction site to be shut down for hours or even days at a time.

The drones Enaeria uses are nothing like the ones people receive under their Christmas tree or for their birthday. These heavy-duty survey drones can still operate in winds of more than 30 km/h. They can also carry a vast array of modular payloads including RGB cameras, near-infrared cameras and infrared cameras.

Enaeria, which is derived from the Greek word for aerial, uses a technique called photogrammetry when conducting work on construction sites. The technique involves shooting multiple images of a site, uploading them to a computer and then stitching them together using specialized software to create a giant site map and accurate 3-D computer model.

On one recent job, Enaeria was enlisted when a new contractor was brought in midway through the excavation phase of a major construction project and staff wanted to know how much material had already been excavated and how much still needed to go. Enaeria surveyed the current elevation of the site and compared that to the original excavation design to precisely determine how much material still needed to be removed from the site.

Matzeg says drones are also a huge boon for construction companies when they need to verify the location of piles. The technology is so precise it can measure the location of an individual pile to within four millimetres and then compare it to the original site plan.

While the number of firms performing aerial surveys and monitoring in the construction industry continues to increase, Matzeg and Feld have a leg up on many of them. The partners are both professional engineers and met while studying mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo. They even developed a specialized system to analyze the data they collect.

“We really take the time to understand how the full system works and exactly what the client wants, and set up the survey appropriately so that we can maximize the accuracy for what the client wants,” said Matzeg. “We are able to get the volumes of things that maybe other people don’t have the expertise in because we specialized in the software side of things.”

Another advantage Enaeria has over the competition is that they have been licensed by Transport Canada to operate anywhere in the province of Ontario. Typically, most UAV operators must make an application for each specific job site, a process that can take weeks or months to complete.

“After acquiring approval for 10 site-specific applications, we were able to apply for an Ontario-wide license,” said Matzeg. “That was a huge breakthrough for us. Once we got that all-of-Ontario license, we could go to any client and say, ‘Okay, any time you need us on your site, we can be there.’”

It still makes Matzeg’s head spin when he thinks about how far and how fast he and his partner have come. Two years ago, they were holding weekly meetings on Skype to draft a business plan. Today, the business has grown to the point where they’ve had to hire a business development manager, a couple of contract pilots and a handful of interns.

Interestingly, Matzeg’s interest in drones happened by chance. He was working for a steel company in Hamilton where he had to learn about UAV technology as part of a project he was working on. When the project ended, a light bulb suddenly went on in his head.

“I was having so much fun working on the drone project, I said to Zach, ‘Why don’t we start a business using drones?’” he said, laughing. “That discussion was what sparked the idea for Enaeria.”

For now, Matzeg and Feld have no plans to expand their business outside of Ontario, although the partners say that could be a possibility down the road. 

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Piling Canada is the premier national voice for the Canadian deep foundation construction industry. Each issue is dedicated to providing readers with current and informative editorial, including project updates, company profiles, technological advancements, safety news, environmental information, HR advice, pertinent legal issues and more.