According to one recent study, an estimated 1.7 million drones were registered in the United States alone as of January 2021. Various businesses and government entities have spent a combined $13 billion on drones and related equipment up to this point. All told, the use and application of drones in various sectors is estimated to be worth an enormous $127 billion - a trend that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Drones are particularly helpful in numerous industries, especially construction, for a myriad of different reasons. For example, they can be a viable way for teams to get an overhead view of job sites to better plan their work and understand certain environmental factors they may be working with, more efficiently. They can record images that are later used to optimize grading paths, make better operational decisions, and even understand needs in terms of materials, equipment, and employees.
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration released a new ruling - the Operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People rule - that could potentially impact the way drones are used across the construction industry. The key to mitigating risk from changes like these involves trying to understand them as much as possible.
The new ruling (which took effect in April 2021) states that any drone pilots operating under the ruling may fly A) at night, B) over people, and C) over moving vehicles without needing to first obtain a waiver, if they meet all requirements defined in the rule. Having said that, any drone used at night "in controlled airspace under 400 feet" will still require airspace authorization.
In a larger sense, what this means for construction companies is that if an operator shows that they can fly safely under these conditions, they can get an FAA waiver for certain requirements under the new rule. However, more airman certifications may be necessary for all PIC (or "Pilot in Command") operators. This could include getting a Remote Pilot Certificate with a UAS rating, which would require going through online training courses designed for licensed pilots and completing a flight review at some point in the last two years. Additional background checks and ongoing training and education may also be necessary over time.
Likewise, the Pilot in Command will need to make their drone available to be inspected and tested by officials from the FAA. They'll likely need to provide records as requested, and they'll need to report any incidents to the FAA immediately after they occur. In this context, incidents would involve situations where the drone caused a serious injury, where it caused property damage valued at $500 or more, and similar situations.
Although the new FAA ruling on drone use will positively impact the construction industry, it may make it slightly more difficult to operate under certain contexts. More than anything, this new ruling serves as an important reminder that the rules and regulations governing drones are changing all the time.
The FAA is constantly testing out and proposing new regulations, and it can be difficult to keep up with them all. Organizational leaders need to make every effort to do so - particularly as failing to comply could endanger their employees, job sites, and bottom-line operations. Company executives should take the initiative to evaluate the risks they're exposed to and determine how to mitigate them as much as possible. As drones become more popular, better, and more effective training is available at lower costs all the time. Increased access to drones and their usage is positively impacting, but quickly evolving, the construction industry. It’s crucial construction executives and leaders stay on top of evolving litigation regarding industry advancements to remain in compliance as well as a leading company in the industry.