Americans should commend U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta for leading a federal effort to safely integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) into the National Airspace System. Clarified regulations that went into effect Aug. 29 represent great progress on this integration that will help construction and building operations optimize the benefits of drone technology—but the work still is incomplete.
The new regulations are a major advancement in the liberalization of the skies for small, unmanned aircraft. They also set an excellent foundation for improving future regulations. They will encourage commercial drone operation at scale and should have a huge economic impact. And with time, the empirical data collected during expanded operations will provide a basis for lowering the regulatory barriers even further for the smallest class of drones, the micro category, which are inherently safer than larger aircraft.
Weeks ago, the White House held a workshop entitled Drones and the Future of Aviation. The discussion highlighted several federal efforts to encourage additional movement toward more flexible drone regulations, including allowing the smallest class of drones to fly over people and beyond operator line of sight. We were pleased to hear that proposed rules with regards to these specific regulations are to be published for comment this winter. Also noteworthy, the National Science Foundation will provide $35 million to study, among other things, the use of drones for monitoring and inspection of buildings, bridges and roads.
Drones could enhance safety, improve project outcomes and reduce costs if rules restricting their use above construction sites are further liberalized.
The next set of regulations should let construction firms classify all jobsite workers as "participants” in drone operations. That will ease restrictions that still, in the just released rules, prohibit flying drones above people not participating in the drone operations. By law, construction employees already wear hard hats, which essentially eliminates the risk the “participating” clause seeks to reduce.
Increasing the use of drones over jobsites could help reduce the fatality rate in construction—which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs at 16.5% of all workplace fatalities—by increasing the virtual mobility of safety managers and allowing them to access and inspect entire sites, including dangerous areas, quickly and safely. A recent Georgia Tech Usability Assessment estimated such use could improve a safety inspector’s efficiency by 50%.
Increased drone use for exterior inspections can reduce the exposure of people to danger. With a drone, an inspection may be completed in minutes and an educated decision made about whether or not the expense and risk of a human inspection is warranted.
Drones have already proven they can improve job site efficiency and decrease a project's cycle. According to a recent construction report by McKinsey & Company, large civil infrastructure projects overrun cost by an average of 80% and trample the construction schedule by an average of 20 months. The same study found that geological surprises are a major reason projects go over budget and are delayed, and suggests drones can be part of the solution. As the report states:
“Discrepancies between ground conditions and early survey estimates can require costly last-minute changes to project scope and design. New techniques that integrate high-definition photography, 3-D laser scanning, and geographic information systems, enabled by recent improvements in drone and unmanned-aerial-vehicle (UAV) technology, can dramatically improve accuracy and speed.”
The way forward is for the public and private sector to work closely and collaboratively to develop regulations that address public safety while also allowing this technology to thrive and benefit a wide array of commercial sectors, including building and construction.
Drones are a prime example of technological advancements moving faster than the regulatory frameworks trying to deal with them. Fortunately, federal regulators and policymakers see the life-saving potential of relaxing these regulations; we encourage them to work diligently and quickly.
More work is needed to advance the safe integration of UAVs into construction, but the finish line is near. Let’s keep pressing forward.
Brent Pirruccello is vice president of Enterprise, 3D Robotics. Amar Hanspal, is the senior vice president for products at Autodesk