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The Sky’s the Limit for Drones & Construction Jobsites

If you’ve never seen a drone hovering over a busy construction site, chances are those days are numbered. New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations for the commercial use of drones make it likely that these unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will increasingly join cranes and scaffolds as common sights on building landscapes.

The regulations, which the FAA says will help ensure the remote-controlled devices operate safely alongside commercial aircraft, apply to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. They include:

  • Limiting drone operation to daylight hours
  • Restricting altitude to 400 feet and speed to 100 mph
  • Requiring operators to be 16 years of age or older and pass a background check and a written test every two years
  • Requiring anti-collision lights for twilight operation
  • Requiring operators to perform a preflight safety check
  • Requiring the operator to keep the drone in sight at all times
  • Forbidding drone flight over humans unless they are part of the drone operation, covered by a structure or inside a vehicle

The regulations took effect August 29, ending the FAA prohibition on using drones for business, a ban the FAA has also granted exemptions to. Drones used for construction account for nearly half of these exemptions. The devices, which are less costly to operate than airplanes and helicopters, are used to get aerial views of projects and can help determine if work is being done safely and progressing on schedule.

Drones have also been used to inspect challenging areas where it can be dangerous for workers to venture, such as bridge underpinnings, roofs and towers and confined spaces, where there could be a buildup of toxic substances (e.g., flammable gas or carbon monoxide). Some businesses have also used drones to search for buildable lots and for testing design ideas such as where to place windows. However, because obtaining an exemption has often been a months-long process, commercial drone use has also often been inconvenient and not cost-effective.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) said the new regulations pave the way for more drones to be in operation, which will be good for the economy and improve safety.

“Our economic report projects that the expansion of UVS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs and generate more than $82 billion to the economy in the first decade following integration,” said Brian Wynne, president and CEO of AUVSI. “The final rule allows for many uses of small [unmanned aerial systems] and a streamlined waiver process to expand applications.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which has expressed concerns about collisions with drones, said the regulations include many beneficial safety provisions but that more needs to be done. Pilots report hundreds of drone sightings in unauthorized airspace every month to the FAA, many occurring thousands of feet in the air.

“ALPA would like to see the FAA take a stronger stance in ensuring that those who commercially pilot [UAVs] hold the same certificate as commercial-rated pilots,” the 53,000 member union said in a statement.

Hundreds of thousands of drones have been sold in the United States, mostly as toys. The new rules do not apply to them and while the guidelines for operating are similar, ALPA said that people flying drones recreationally should be as strictly regulated as commercial operators.

While drones are already being put to good use on construction sites across the U.S., this likely isn’t the last we’ll hear about these eyes in the sky. There are still concerns from the public about privacy issues, and there’s also the issue of liability in the event of a crash. The LHSFNA will continue to monitor for new information as it becomes available.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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