Using an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV/drone) to Improve Student Engagement with Building Construction, Systems, and Codes

Presented by: Nathan Bicak

Summary To help interior design students better understand and become engaged with building construction, codes and systems, an instructor employs the use of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV/drone) in a Building Codes, Systems and Construction course. Context Recently, UAVs have become part of public discourse due to their military applications, but they have also been used in the civilian sector since the 1990s. For example, they are used for agriculture, infrastructure monitoring, and geological surveying.(1) While in the building industry, UAVs are used predominantly for project flyovers and site documentation. One of the more progressive projects utilizing UAVs in design is occurring at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, where roboticists are exploring the possibility of using drones as autonomous structure builders.(2) This presentation will propose that UAVs also have a place in design education as a means of investigating interior and exterior spaces from outside the occupied zone. Specifically, a UAV offers a means to understand complex construction systems and building codes with which an interior designer is concerned. As this technology rapidly advances and becomes more accessible, the use of drones will likely be commonplace in the professional design world. Problem The aforementioned topics of construction, systems and codes are often difficult to teach because they are perceived as uninteresting and tedious, for both students and faculty. In searching for a way to make these seemingly mundane topics relatable and memorable, a professor decided to implement a UAV to excite students (and professors) about these topics and to explore the capabilities of an emerging technology. Methods of Investigation Throughout a semester, students in a third year Building Codes, Systems and Construction course flew a UAV at building projects and over construction sites (Appendix A). This interactive exercise improved students understanding of the materials covered in the classroom via traditional methods, such as lecture, reading, homework and testing. In teams, students created videos with the flight footage that showcased particular elements of construction (Appendix B); the teams were directed to identify specific aspects of construction or code compliance. The class looked at curtain walls, steel framing systems, roof elements, fire suppression system layouts, and building systems layouts. Outcomes Using a UAV to augment topics like building systems, construction and codes offers a way for students to virtually get hands-on with buildings and spaces. This exercise also gives students experience with a dynamic technology that is increasingly being utilized in professional design practice. Piloting a UAV around a building or on a construction site allows students to experience a project from impossible vantages and angles. For instance, while hovering 50 feet in the air and five feet off a building façade, students were able to better view, and thus better understand the purpose of an expansion joint on a large building. Similarly, when students can view a ramp from 30 feet in the air, they can fully realize how much horizontal space a code-compliant ramp requires. These types of observations, and engaging learning environment, prompt active questions and discussion about other, previously hidden aspects of construction and code compliance. Lastly, as the topic of UAVs often spurs a dynamic debate, this presentation, which focuses on their potential for design students, will incite stimulating discussion amongst design educators.


  • (1) K. Nonami, et al, Autonomous Flying Robots: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Micro Aerial Vehicles, (Tokyo: Springer, 2010), pp 13-14.
  • (2) Dezeen, “Drones can ‘collaborate to build architectural structures,’” Dezeen and Mini Frontiers, 3 March 2015, (30 September 2015).