For decades now, the word “drones” has evoked a militaristic image of pilotless aircraft, but the technology of unmanned flight has evolved and adapted to meet civilian needs. Drone technology is now available at prices that make it affordable and lucrative to operate, and contractors are increasingly relying on it as a resource to produce results in all phases of construction.
These small, nimble aircraft can be used to increase productivity on the jobsite. Their capacity for capturing video, photography, thermal imaging and Lidar makes drones useful for surveying potential sites, creating 2D and 3D mapping and imaging, inspecting infrastructure and building facades and monitoring progress, quality concerns and work hazards.
However, drones fit within the legal definition of aircraft, which means they are subject to Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Unfortunately, regulations specific to drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as the FAA calls them, do not yet exist. Congress included a mandate in the FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act for the development of a regulatory structure to integrate drones into national airspace, but the FAA has been slow to develop those regulations.
In February, the FAA took the first step by releasing the highly anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking called, “Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Those systems are defined as drones that weigh less than 55 lb. The public comment period ended in April. More than 4,500 comments were submitted, and now the agency is reviewing them.
In the meantime, the only way to obtain permission to operate drones commercially is through an exemption. The drone operator must submit a petition for exemption from FAA regulations that would otherwise prohibit the operation.
Seeking an exemption was initially a lengthy and unpredictable process, requiring a considerable industry and agency resources. This past spring, however, the agency streamlined the process.
Now, upon receipt of a petition for exemption, the FAA will automatically grant a blanket certificate of waiver, or authorization, (COA) for flights at or below 200 ft if the aircraft weighs less than 55 lb and operations occur during daytime visual-flight rules conditions and stay a certain distance from airports. After receiving the blanket COA, operators who want to fly outside those parameters are then eligible to apply for a separate COA specific to their operations.
The ability to seize economic opportunities afforded by advancing drone technology will be largely determined by compliance costs related to the FAA’s eventual regulatory framework as well as potential liability under state laws. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, in 2015 alone, state legislatures in 45 states have deliberated 164 different bills related to drones. Of those, 25 have become law across 19 states.
Plainly, there are hurdles to clear before contractors can more easily fly drones over construction sites, but so far those hurdles have not proved insurmountable to individuals and companies purchasing and operating drones.
To date, more than 1,700 FAA exemptions have been granted, with more than 150 of those specifically mentioning construction as an intended purpose of the drone operations.
Furthermore, there is anecdotal evidence that many individuals and companies are operating drones without government approval. This is a dangerous path to take, as evidenced by the FAA’s proposed $1.9-million fine on Oct. 6 against a company that allegedly conducted 65 unauthorized commercial drone flights.
While the legal implications of commercially operating drones are still murky, the industry growth potential is undeniable. One indicator of market strength lies in investment data. CB Insights reports that $108 million was invested in the UAS industry in 2014 alone.
Additionally, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates that between 2015 and 2025, the cumulative economic impact of integrating drones into the NAS will be upward of $82 billion—creating more than 100,000 jobs and boosting $482 million in tax revenue to the states.
While these figures are speculative and will depend largely on the impact of federal regulations, the message is clear—the drone industry is ready to take flight. Are you?