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Josef Hargrave

Global foresight manager

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Can drones transform surveying and modelling?

Can drones transform surveying and modelling?

Focus Area

Cities, Digital


Cities, Masterplanning and Urban Design


East Asia



Accessible and accurate site data is essential to project development. Traditional spatial capture technology is based on CAD models, GIS data and satellite images, which can be costly, time consuming and labour-intensive. Data-mapping drones offer an effective alternative, as their enhanced mobility provides opportunities to create detailed maps quickly, cover a large span, and access areas that may be problematic for field engineers to access.

In collaboration with DJI and Pix4D, Arup developed an in-house drone service to support field engineers performing site surveys and site monitoring. Using drone technology, a wide range of site-surveying data, covering a large span, can be obtained. For example, the Arup research team integrated sensors into drones to measure urban heat island effects, including temperature, humidity, radiance and air quality.

Drones also enable more efficient analysis of collated and pre-existing information. The data collected can be converted into a 3D mesh model and facilitates direct design and planning. Additionally, a web-based BIM platform has been created to fill the gap between onsite inspection procedures and building operation process. Drones with varying specifications are available, and can be selected based on the project scale and site accessibility.

Key Findings

Drones enable enhanced efficiency and accuracy for capturing and analysis of site data. Using UAV, the data can be captured and processed in less than two days. The point cloud data can then be converted into a 3D model, providing a 100% spatially accurate model of the site. With additional processing, its layers can be separated and exported into CAD and GIS for further design and planning evaluation.


Drone technology can be directly applied to provide abundant and accurate quantitative data for planners. This is particularly significant when working in environments with limited data available in public space.

Furthermore, drones can easily obtain data from locations that are usually difficult, expensive, or time consuming to access. This opens opportunities for the efficient inspection of bridges and facades, monitoring of traffic, land leveling surveys and studies of underground structures.


The increased efficiency, abundance, and accuracy of data gathered will enable more precise and time effective planning. The reduced capacity for human error further enhances the quality of plans.

A broader impact is on the availability of data. Drone technology enables users to gather data from previously inaccessible environments, opening venues for improved or even new services.

Drone technology can be tailored to diverse engineering contexts and harvest data of specific nature and purpose, for example, terrain analysis, post-disaster evaluation and environmental capture of CO2, PM2.5, temperature and humidity.