News Ticker

Drones Poised to Soar as FAA Eases Regs

New rules allow operation of small unmanned aircraft systems in National Airspace System

By Jim Rogers, Special to AZBEX

Small remote controlled aircraft – affectionately called drones and officially designated as Unmanned Aircraft Systems by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) – have been getting frequent mentions these days in news articles.

Until now, their use has been mostly limited to hobbyists and professionals recording video footage and taking marketing photos, but proposed uses have ranged from Amazon wanting to use them to deliver packages, to concrete producers wanting to use them to survey and measure aggregate stockpiles.

Modern drones incorporate advanced technology that can include onboard gyroscopes, flight automation systems and high resolution video. This technology results in an aircraft that is easy to control and can even be programmed to fly itself. Unfortunately, this has also been a perfect example of technological development outpacing the rules and regulations that governs its use.

Until recently, the FAA placed severely limiting restrictions on the use of drones for any commercial purposes, including the requirement that the operator had to have a pilot’s license, and most commercial usage required special permission from the FAA. As of August, this all changed.

The FAA has released its long-awaited new rules for the operation and commercial use of drones, which means we in the construction industry can really start to look at how to use them to increase safety, productivity and quality on our job sites.

The new rules eliminate the need for a full pilot’s license and codify what we can and can’t do with drones. Most importantly, they officially allow the operation of small unmanned aircraft systems in the National Airspace System without having to obtain FAA permission, as long as the usage meets the restrictions set forth in the new rules.

Key requirements include:

  • The drone must weigh less than 55 lbs.
  • It must be flown at speeds under 100 mph, at altitudes under 400 feet, and can’t be flown over people
  • Flights are permitted during daylight only
  • The operator must hold a remote pilot certificate obtained by passing a written knowledge test – The FAA anticipates being able to issue temporary certificates within 10 days of application
  • The operator must maintain a visual line-of-sight of the aircraft
  • The aircraft must be registered, but does not need to be inspected or certified by FAA
  • External load operations are allowed with some restrictions

Perhaps the biggest potential benefit of these drones for the construction industry is the remote viewing capability. We have seen several companies beginning to offer services, such as 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 make it possible to use them for inspections in areas that are otherwise difficult or hazardous to access. For example, utility companies are discussing the use of small drones to do inspections that would normally require someone to climb each pole.

In construction, the same concept could easily be extended to include routine rooftop inspections, which could enable several people to view conditions or progress on the roof of a construction project without the need for any of them to climb and work from heights. This improves safety, quality and productivity in the construction industry.

There are some additional requirements and restrictions to be aware of, but these highly anticipated new rules now make it possible to begin implementing this technology into our industry. To learn more, read my blog posting, which includes additional discussions, requirements, links to some examples and links to the full FAA rules that just took effect.

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