Here Come the Drones!
For the last several years, drones, officially known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have been making a debut with early technology adopters and hobbyists. These small remotely piloted aircraft have been seen in news articles (some positive and some negative), they have been used by You Tubers to record some spectacular video footage, and we have even seen some documented uses within construction and related industries. For the uninitiated, there are a couple of key things that make these remotely controlled aircraft different from the radio controlled (RC) planes and helicopters flown by hobbyists in years past. First, the configuration of these new drones incorporates advanced technology including gyroscopes, flight automation systems and sometimes even proximity sensors. All of this technology results in an aircraft that is much easier to control and that can even be programmed to fly itself. Second, the improvement in on-board cameras and mounting systems has opened a whole new world of possibilities.
Ongoing news stories have documented anticipated uses for these drones that have ranged from Amazon using them to deliver packages, to concrete producers using them to measure their aggregate stockpiles. Also dominating the news about drones has been the lack of FAA rules that spell out what we can and can’t do, and where we can fly these aircraft without getting in trouble. Until recently, the only real guidance that was issues is that the aircraft had to be registered, and that the remote pilot had to have at least a sport pilot’s license if they wanted to use the drone for any “commercial” purposes. The lack of guidance and lack of any uniform enforcement activities (sometimes you get in trouble and sometimes you don’t) have resulted in many industries taking a wait and see position before getting too excited about adopting this new technology. As of August 29, 2016, this all changed.
The FAA has finally released its long awaited new rules for the operation and commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, and it means that we in the construction industry can really start to look at how we can use drones to increase safety, productivity and quality on our job sites. The new rules, officially known as 14 CFR Part 107, finally give some guidance on what we can and can’t do with drones, they replace the requirement for a pilot’s license with a new drone operator certification (See Figure 1), and most importantly they officially allow the commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems in the National Airspace System without requiring FAA inspections or special permissions as long as the usage complies with the new rules (See Figure 2).
Figure 1 – Pilot Certification Information
A person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command)
To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, a person must:
Demonstrate aeronautical knowledge by either:
Passing an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center; or
Hold a part 61 pilot certificate other than student pilot, complete a flight review within the previous 24 months, and complete a small UAS online training course provided by the FAA
Be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration
Be at least 16-years old
Part 61 pilot certificate holders may obtain a temporary remote pilot certificate immediately upon submission of their application for a permanent certificate
Other applicants will obtain a temporary remote pilot certificate upon successful completion of TSA security vetting
The FAA anticipates that it will be able to issue a temporary remote pilot certificate within 10 business days after receiving a completed remote pilot certificate application
Perhaps the biggest benefit of these drones for the construction industry is the remote viewing capability. We have seen several companies, including my friends at Small Giants, begin to offer services like aerial photography which allows us to get great marketing photos of job sites from angles not before possible; however, the possibilities extend far beyond marketing photos. The precise control and high resolution video capabilities of these aircraft make it possible to use them for inspections in areas that are otherwise difficult or risky to access. For example, a recent article appearing in USA Today by veteran energy journalist Bill Loveless, discussed the use of drones by utility companies to inspect power poles. In that article, Chris Hickling, the director of government relations for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) stated:
“You can think of a scenario where in the not-too-distant future, utilities could put some of the smaller drones on every single lineworker’s truck, so that when they go to sites, they could zip it up and down a pole to do inspections that would normally require someone climbing all the way up there”
Besides utility inspections, this same concept could also be extended to include rooftop inspections. A recent visit to a client of mine included the need to climb a 30-foot fixed ladder, exit through a roof hatch, and walk about 300,000 square feet of roof area in 103-degree heat. Not only would a drone have been faster, it would have eliminated the exposure of working at heights, and would have enabled us to have several people quickly review footage of that one questionable area without having 3 or 4 people climb to the roof. This is an incredible example of using technology to improve safety, quality and productivity!
The new FFA rules do contain some restrictions that are also important to understand in order to really start considering what exactly you can and cannot do. For example, you cannot fly over people and the remote pilot is required to maintain visual contact with the aircraft. The rooftop walk I described above was being done primarily for safety purposes, to ensure the personnel working on the roof were doing so safely. We needed to ensure that warning lines were properly placed, holes were covered and that personnel were using designated tie off points when working near roof edges and material hoisting locations. The height of the roof and the size of the building made this impossible to do from the ground, and the fact that part of the reason for the inspection is to observe people working, it may seem like the only way to accomplish this task is by walking the roof; however, I could have easily launched a drone from the ground, kept it in sight, and piloted it away from the edge of the building instead of directly over it, all while using the built-in camera to zoom in and see what I needed to see. Simply having that aerial vantage point would have given me the view I needed without having to fly over any people.
If I needed to perform a more detailed inspection of the roof top that required flying over the roof, I could simply wait to perform that flyover when there were no personnel working. This brings us back to that requirement for constant visual contact. In some cases, this building is so large that to inspect portions of the roof, the drone would have to be piloted out of visual contact. I would still have visual awareness of the surroundings from the video being streamed to the remote, but the FAA specifically states that this is not the same as maintaining visual line of sight of the aircraft. So the question becomes, “are the rules too restrictive to make this technology useful?”
Figure 2 – Summary of Operational Restrictions
Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg)
Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS
Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle
Daylight-only operations, or civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting
Must yield right of way to other aircraft
May use visual observer (VO) but not required
First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways
Maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots)
Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, remain within 400 feet of a structure
No person may act as a remote pilot in command or VO for more than one unmanned aircraft operation at one time
No carriage of hazardous materials
External load operations are allowed if the object being carried by the unmanned aircraft is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft
This is a question that can be tricky to answer, and each company will have to analyze their site specific circumstances in order to make an informed decision. There are a number of rules, highlighted in Figure 2, that need to be taken into consideration. Most are simple and straightforward. The remote pilot must obtain a certificate by demonstrating basic knowledge of the rules and safe operating procedures. This is a fairly simple and straightforward process that involves passing a written exam, but it’s nowhere near as restrictive as the old rule requiring a pilot’s license. Since the workflow and location of people can be controlled on most construction sites, the rule prohibiting flight operations over people can be adhered to with a little planning. The requirement for daytime flight only is also one that we can probably live with in the construction industry. That brings us back to that visual line of sight requirement, and this is one rule that does have many people questioning the usefulness of this technology.
In the earlier mentioned article about the utility company’s use of drones, they cite this as a potential limiting factor because one of their uses could be programming a drone to fly along the path of power lines to inspect long runs quickly and from a better vantage point that on the ground. The requirement to maintain visual line of sight would limit the distance that they could inspect from one location. Similarly, to get the views that would be needed of the roof on my project, there are times that the drone would not be in my sight. Again, these are situations that will need to be evaluated according to each specific set of circumstances, but the FAA does provide some additional guidance on this rule.
First, as with any operation, preplanning will always help. Understanding your surroundings and understanding the goal of the flight will help to plan your operating location(s) and flight path(s). For example, on some projects I may be able to operate the drone from top of an adjacent structure to maintain a visual line sight over a greater area. Other sites may require me to land and relocate my operating position. An additional option is to get a waiver from the FAA. In its summary of the new rules, they clearly state that most of the restrictions discussed above are waivable if the applicant demonstrates that his or her operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver. Flying over a facility that is under construction, not open to the public and under the complete control of the general contractor may qualify for a waiver of that visual line of sight requirement. But before going through that process, there is additional guidance from the FAA that should be taken into consideration.
In an Advisory Circular (AC No. 107-2) published by the FAA to assist the remote pilot in meeting the requirements of applicable 14 CFR regulations, the FAA actually discusses this example of inspecting a roof and the fact that this is an operation that is perfect for a drone, but that may require the aircraft to be out of sight for brief periods of time. The following paragraph is taken from the FAA Advisory Circular:
For operational necessity, the remote PIC or person manipulating the controls may intentionally maneuver the UA so that he or she loses sight of it for brief periods of time. Should the remote PIC or person manipulating the controls lose VLOS of the small UA, he or she must regain VLOS as soon as practicable. For example, a remote PIC stationed on the ground utilizing a small UA to inspect a rooftop may lose sight of the aircraft for brief periods while inspecting the farthest point of the roof. As another example, a remote PIC conducting a search operation around a fire scene with a small UA may briefly lose sight of the aircraft while it is temporarily behind a dense column of smoke. However, it must be emphasized that even though the remote PIC may briefly lose sight of the small UA, he or she always has the see-and-avoid responsibilities set out in part 107, §§ 107.31 and 107.37. The circumstances of what would prevent a remote PIC from fulfilling those responsibilities will vary, depending on factors such as the type of UAS, the operational environment, and distance between the remote PIC and the UA. For this reason, there is no specific time interval that interruption of VLOS is permissible, as it would have the effect of potentially allowing a hazardous interruption or prohibiting a reasonable one.
While this does not provide absolute rules on what is acceptable and what is not, it at least acknowledges the fact that they (FAA) do understand that some operations will result in brief periods of time where the pilot cannot see the drone, and it offers some examples of when that might be acceptable. Again, if this guidance is combined with some preplanning on a controlled site, the use of small, remotely piloted unmanned aircraft could prove very useful in continuing the quest to improve safety, quality and productivity in the construction industry.
For more information on the FAA rules and operational guidance on small unmanned aircraft systems be sure to visit the FAA’s drone web site page at https://www.faa.gov/uas/ . If you have already been operating drones under a waiver you previously granted by the FAA, you might also be interested in the FAA article titled “Section 333 vs. Part 107: What Works for You.”