Smart drones, a game changer for building façade inspection
TÜV SÜD's professional façade inspection engineers are assisted by an advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) model to deliver compliant inspection reports at the highest industry standard. Source: TÜV SÜD
Don’t be surprised if you see a drone whirring by your window one day. After all, inspection of building façades in Singapore has experienced a sea change. In the past, workers had to access high-rise buildings via gondola or boom lifts. The process was time consuming, costly and risky.
Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) operationalised the Periodic Façade Inspection (PFI) regime since 1 January 2022 to improve public safety through timely detection and rectification of façade defects on buildings.
This means that buildings 20 years old and above must be inspected every seven years, with the exception of landed residential homes, temporary buildings and buildings no higher than 13 metres.
To provide building owners with safer and more efficient options for building façade inspection, BCA and the Housing Development Board (HDB), with the support of Enterprise Singapore and the National Research Foundation (NRF), jointly launched an open innovation call in 2017 for companies to develop drone inspection systems.
Drones can provide 100% visual inspection that the new regulation calls for, which was very challenging with traditionally labour-intensive methods of using binoculars and cameras.
The challenge attracted more than 20 proposals from local and overseas players, and five consortiums were eventually awarded to develop solutions leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance efficiency of building façade inspection.
Local solutions for global problems
One consortium developed Facilities 4.0 — a drone inspection system that automates a significant part of the planning and detection work. Facilities 4.0 can capture high-quality images of the façade of buildings via a semi-automated flight path planner. Data is collected and assessed by their proprietary detection AI engine, FaultFinder.
“FaultFinder works 24/7, never gets tired, is always learning to be better. It also protects the privacy of data captured,” says Mr Mark Yong, CEO of Garuda Robotics, commercial lead of the consortium.
“The results are automatically compiled into a report for action,” he adds. “This report is compliant with TR 78, the technical standard for drone façade inspection reports in Singapore.”
Garuda Robotics FaultFinder AI is trained to detect and classify common façade defects to speed up inspections. Source: Garuda Robotics
Besides Garuda Robotics, the consortium comprises Andes Consultants, the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE) and A*STAR’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC).
The consortium has since secured a contract to inspect the façade of HDB flats in Punggol and Bedok. With the scale of its operations, it has had to coordinate with multiple stakeholders such as town councils, façade inspectors, engineers and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, prior to the inspection process.
With learnings from deployment of its drones in the heartlands, Mr Yong shares that the team is eyeing overseas markets to scale the business.
“After all, we’re solving a globally relevant problem, and the number of built environments with aging building stock is only increasing,” he notes. “We’re working to make Facilities 4.0 a preferred solution for anyone in the world who carries out these critical infrastructure management functions.”
Finding the right playing field
Equipped with a smart piloting system, the drones that TÜV SÜD deploy ensures both operational safety and high-quality visual inspection. Source: TÜV SÜD
Another consortium, comprising of Xjera, Mtech, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU), IHPC, and TÜV SÜD, developed a customisable drone platform with a multimodal sensor function that efficiently inspects the façade of buildings.
TÜV SÜD was keen to work with local companies and research institutes, attracted to the skilled talent pool, affinity to advanced technology and the forward-looking regulators in Singapore, according to Dr Yuan, Principal Engineer of Visual Analytics at TÜV SÜD’s Digital Service.
“We also recognised that a new service would require partners who are familiar with the local ecosystem,” he said. “At the same time, nimble enough to accommodate the evolving requirements. Thus, Singapore-based companies came as a natural fit.”
Led by the multinational service provider, the consortium, which was also made up of local startups and research institutes, developed a solution that comes with a mobile app that is used to manage the inspection results and facilitate post-inspection defect repairs. Using AI to identify defects, a qualified façade inspector then checks the results and corrects any possible mistakes. This process continuously enhances the accuracy of inspection.
The team started the project in February 2019 and developed its first prototype 10 months later. After the initial development, the team needed to test its drone prototype and inspection service capability on-site in realistic settings.
Working closely with BCA and HDB, the consortium performed a drone inspection at Clementi Avenue where HDB blocks had been zoned off for the Selective En bloc Redevelopment Scheme.
“The trial was very successful and greatly boosted the confidence of the team in the technology,” said Dr Yuan. “Essentially, the flight validated our product and its feasibility in complex urban environments.”
Off to a good start, the team continued with more trials, roping in BCA and HDB and other pilot teams from TÜV SÜD. In January 2021, TÜV SÜD launched the solution to the market.
The launch has been so successful that the solution was subsequently introduced to other countries, such as Philippines, Hong Kong, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Cost savings and efficiency
Indeed, the smart façade inspection system is a game changer for the built environment industry. For high-rise buildings, building owners enjoy cost savings with drone technology versus conventional inspection that involves tools such as gondolas, binoculars, or cameras from a vantage point.
“The costs of conventional façade inspection could be even higher if the building has a challenging façade type or complex architectural structure. In comparison, drone-based smart façade inspection is independent of these variations and the effort only scales with the façade size,” said Dr Yuan.
When it comes to efficiency, drones trump conventional inspection. With drones, façade photos are geo-tagged with the 3D reality models. Defects identified by the AI system in the captured photos are automatically marked onto the 3D building model for easy reference.
With conventional methods, inspectors must manually scan the building’s façade to identify and record the location of defects, and manually tag the defects on photos before generating a report.
Taking the solution global
The open innovation challenge has strengthened private-public collaboration and catalysed organisations with unique expertise to create disruptive products to solve a pressing problem faced by the built environment industry.
Following the final pilots of the consortiums, Enterprise Singapore worked with fellow government agencies and industry players to develop a series of standards in two parts, TR 78-1: 2020 and TR 78-2: 2021 – the first of their kind worldwide – that provides guidance on the processes involved in using drones for building façade inspection, and a set of conformance requirements for drones inspection service providers (ISPs), which include protecting the privacy of building occupants.
In collaboration with Singapore Accreditation Council, BCA is working on developing an accreditation program for ISPs to become accredited Inspection Bodies, building on the series of TR 78 standards as the conformance reference and standard.
Singaporean companies looking for international opportunities in building façade inspection can leverage on the newly developed standards as an assurance of their quality, adding a competitive edge to their inspection system.
Mr Yong says, “As a startup, you have limited resources and cannot do everything on your own. Working with partners is a force multiplier that allows you to build a solution that is greater than the sum of its parts.”
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