In the very near future, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), will be flying over your construction site if they aren’t already…and that’s a good thing. Drones are expected to have a positive impact on the construction industry in a number of ways such as improving jobsite safety, providing detailed 3-D models of construction sites and performing building inspections. Further development of drone technology could lead to drones performing construction tasks like welding, drilling and assembling modular units to construct buildings.
Current Use of Drones at the Construction Site
Drones can be fitted with digital cameras or HD video cameras in order to track progress at the construction site or to conduct site safety inspections. The drones can operate autonomously using predefined flight paths or be operated manually using a smartphone, tablet or remote control. They can even be equipped with a tablet in order to provide two-way communication with workers in the field. Imagine a safety manager being able to fly a drone across a large construction site to tell a worker he needs to put his hard hat on. Drones have also been equipped with LIDAR equipment, a remote sensing method that uses laser scanners to collect point cloud data, along with GPS and other sensors to produce highly detailed 3-D models of construction sites and existing structures.
Construction firms, universities and drone manufacturers are all performing research, conducting studies and testing the use of drones for construction-related applications. Researchers at Georgia Tech wrapped up a yearlong study earlier this year showing how Georgia DOT could use drones to safely inspect bridges for cracks and other signs of deterioration. Drones have also been used to conduct inspections of joint sealants and roofs quickly and accurately without the added costs and time needed to erect scaffolds.
Skycatch, a San Francisco based startup, is working with construction firms like Bechtel and DPR to track construction progress and provide data collected using drones equipped with cameras and sensors. Brasfield & Gorrie has teamed up with Auburn University to test the use of drones to inspect the exterior of the massive Grandview Medical Center currently under construction in Birmingham, AL. Kansas State University partnered with engineering firm Wilson & Co. to build a drone that was used to map and survey a landfill.
Possible Uses of Construction Drones in the Future
Aside from the current uses already being implemented on construction jobs, drones could play an even bigger role in the future. Flight Assembled Architecture, an exhibition created by architects Gramazio & Kholer and Raffaello d’Andrea, showcased how drones could be used to transport and assemble modular units to build a structure. The project used a team of drones capable of communicating with other and operated semi-autonomously to use 1,500 foam bricks to construct a 20-ft tower. The idea here is that the project could be scaled up using larger drones to place modular units to create a 2,000-ft vertical village with 30,000 inhabitants.
A team from the University of Pennsylvania’s General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab used a team of drones to autonomously assemble a tower-like structure using magnetically connected beams and columns. It’s possible this technology could be used in the future using teams of drones to lift, transport and connect steel beams to construct high-rise structures without the use of cranes.
Is it Legal?
The legality of the commercial use of drones in the US is a bit murky. Back in March a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) judge granted a motion to dismiss an order by the FAA that assessed a $10,000 fine to a man who had commercially used a drone to video the University of Virginia campus because he allegedly endangered life and property by operating an aircraft too close to people and buildings. The order of assessment also mentioned that he operated his model aircraft without an FAA pilot certification and received compensation for the flight. The judge ruled that the FAA regulations in question don’t apply to model aircrafts such as drones. The FAA argued that the model aircraft or drone fell into their definition of aircraft and was subject to FAA regulations despite the agency differentiating between the two in the past.
The FAA is planning to appeal the decision and in June published a Notice of Interpretation in the Federal Register regarding Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Section 336 states that the FAA cannot create a rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft as long as it is flown for hobby or recreational use, weighs 55 pounds or less, doesn’t interfere with manned aircraft and isn’t flown within 5 miles of an airport without permission. The is in regards to the requirement that the FAA is required to provide a plan by September 15, 2015 for the safe integration of civil unmanned aircraft systems into national airspace as soon as practicable.
Somehow the FAA has interpreted this to mean that because they have been tasked with creating rules for the civil use of drones in the future that they can fine people now for commercially using drones despite the fact that there are no regulations or rules prohibiting their use in this way. The FAA also released safety guidelines for hobby and recreational use of drones in a list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts”. The last “Do” is “Do fly a model aircraft for personal enjoyment” and the last “Don’t” on the list is “Don’t fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes.” Is the FAA saying that getting paid to fly a drone is somehow inherently more dangerous than doing it for personal enjoyment? Is it safer to fly a drone for fun rather than for money?
I’m no lawyer and I don’t fully understand the FAA’s reasoning, but my interpretation based on the ruling by the NTSB judge is that commercial use of a drone is completely legal. Just recently a string of lawsuits have been filed against the FAA in regards to their restrictive interpretation of how drones can be operated. There are also a number of companies out there that are using drones commercially for a number of industries so it will be interesting to see if the FAA will try to issue any further fines. Even after all the legality finally gets sorted out I’m sure insurance companies will get involved when it comes to operating drones as part of your construction company.
Note: I’ve come across a couple of articles stating that anyone can use a drone as long as it weighs 4.4 pounds or less, is operated in the line of sight of operator, doesn’t fly higher than 400 ft above ground during daytime hours, within Class G airspace and at least 5 miles away from an airport. This is actually part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and only applies to a government public safety agency. It is not applicable to commercial use, hobby use or any other governmental use except for a public safety agency.
Drone use at construction sites is coming. There’s going to be too much pressure from the private sector and the university community touting the benefits of its commercial use for it not to happen.
What do you think? Are you already using drones for your construction company? Do you plan to use them in the future?