Drones in Construction:
Safety Regulations and Best Practices

Todd Wheeler | Principal, Account Executive

In the ultra-competitive construction landscape, where the name of the game is delivering the highest quality product on time and under budget, Owners/GC’s are scouring new technological advancements to improve both performance and the bottom-line. The popularity of drones, or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), on the jobsite has skyrocketed in recent years, as they prove more cost effective than manned aircraft, gather information quicker than on-ground personnel, and are usually more accurate than both. However, along with this increase in drone popularity comes regulations and Best Practices that must be understood and considered by those competing in the construction industry.

There are numerous benefits of using UAS on jobsites. These include daily progress reports of a construction project, inspections, monitoring trades, changing conditions at the site, and access to difficult-to-reach areas. In addition, UAS have been instrumental in providing accident investigation, as well as becoming an excellent source for Marketing and PR, given the exceptional AV functionality.

As UAS usage spiked in the commercial industry, the FAA’s top concerns were preventing interference with manned aircraft, protecting the public’s well-being and privacy, and preventing bodily injury and property damage. In August 2016, the FAA determined that UAS weighing less than 55 lbs can legally be flown in commercial operations within parameters governed by the FAA. It also issued safety regulations while establishing  a “remote pilot in command” requirement, in which the person operating the UAS must either:

  1. Hold a remote pilot airman certificate, or:
  2. Be under direct supervision of the person who holds the certificate

Qualifications for Remote Pilot Airman certificate:

  1. Must pass Aeronautical knowledge test at FAA-approved testing center, or
    Must hold a part 61 pilot certificate and have completed a flight review w/in the past 24 mos., and
    Completed a UAS training course provided by the FAA ($150)
  2. Must be at least 16 years old
  3. Must be vetted by TSA

The FAA-mandated regulations also included the following:

  1. No night-time operations
  2. Visual line-of-sight requirements
  3. 100 mph maximum ground speed
  4. 400 ft maximum altitude (unless within 400 ft of a structure)
  5. Must yield to manned aircraft at all times
  6. May not operate from a moving vehicle

Another key FAA-mandate:

Flying is prohibited over people not “directly participating” in the flight operations unless they are under shelter or in a stationary vehicle. On a construction project, only the following are “directly participating” in the operation:

  1. The remote pilot in command
  2. The person operating the controls (if not the remote pilot)
  3. The visual observer
  4. Any other person necessary for the safety of the operation

An important distinction is that subcontractors, suppliers, and visitors to the construction site are not considered “part of the operation” and a Certificate of Waiver/Airspace Authorization from the FAA must be secured to fly the UAS over the open construction site. In order to obtain the Waiver Authorization, applicants must submit an application, which can be found at www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver. The response time can be up to 90 days depending on the waiver circumstances, so applicants are advised to apply early.

There are a number of risk exposures that UAS operators need to contemplate, the most prevalent being:

  1. Damage to the UAS due to collision with another aircraft or object
  2. Injury/damage to people/property on the ground
  3. Violation of personal privacy while flying over personal property
  4. Unauthorized data collection

As these risks have evolved, the UAS operators are required to secure insurance coverage contractually when operating on a construction site. The insurance industry is treating UAS like a manned aircraft, and companies that own, lease, or rent UAS have an uninsured liability unless they take the proper steps to cover it. While there is significant capacity to cover UAS exposure in the aviation market, many insurers are simply adding endorsements to Property and GL/Excess policies for a small premium when the FAA requirements are met.

The FAA does not have written maintenance requirements for UAS, other than a visual inspection before each flight, leaving the onus on the UAS owner/operator to ensure the UAS is in excellent working condition. Below are some basic Best Practice/Pre-Flight tips.

The evolution of the commercial UAS industry in construction is dynamic, as more companies utilize UAS to improve performance while trimming costs. But with this budding technology comes new exposure and risk that should be closely identified and evaluated, as well as governmental regulation that must be understood in order to maintain compliance. Failure to accurately assess the risks or adhere to FAA rules could have an adverse financial impact on a job, jeopardizing both bottom-line profitability and the ability to employ UAS in future construction projects.

For more info on UAS federal regulations, please see www.faa.gov/uas

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The views and opinions expressed within are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Parker, Smith & Feek. While every effort has been taken in compiling this information to ensure that its contents are totally accurate, neither the publisher nor the author can accept liability for any inaccuracies or changed circumstances of any information herein or for the consequences of any reliance placed upon it.