About ten years ago, I visited a college friend in Simi Valley, California. He graduated Purdue with an Aeronautical Engineering degree and had left Indiana to work for a company developing unmanned aircraft for the military. He offered me a tour of the facility. That was the first time I had ever seen drone. Now, unmanned aerial systems (UAS or drones) are more a part of our lives than ever. My fourteen year old cousin builds them in the garage, last fall a World Series pitcher sliced his pitching hand working on one, there is drone racing, drone wrangling, and drone delivery services. More and more, however, drones are not just a hobby but drones are being used for legitimate business purposes. In this regard, the use of drones on construction projects is soaring (pun intended). Contractors, owners, and architects have started using drones for all sorts of tasks on construction projects, including inspections, photographing, security, 3-D mapping, surveying, and surveillance.
As drones are becoming widely available and easier to use, rules are being implemented governing their commercial use. One cannot simply buy a drone off the shelf and launch it from the parking lot. Last August, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued the Small Unmanned Aircraft regulations (better known as Part 107 regulations) which regulate the commercial use of drones. These regulations clarify acceptable commercial uses of drones, which are in many instances making it easier for drones to be used for everyday commercial purposes. If you or your company intends to use drones for a commercial purpose on a construction project, you should be aware of the FAA’s Part 107 regulations which can be found here.
Some of the most applicable portions of Part 107 that you need to remember for commercial use of drones on construction projects are that drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, be flown at or below 400 feet in altitude and at no more than 100 miles per hour, and cannot be operated at night (operating hours are thirty minutes before sunrise until thirty minutes after sunset). Drone operators may apply for special waivers from the FAA if they want to fly drones at night, above 400 feet, or in other specific circumstances. Drone operators must be at least 16 years old and must also take an FAA aeronautical test and obtain a remote pilots certificate before operating a drone.
A summary of SOME of applicable sections of Part 107 regulations are as follows:
- Drones must weigh less than 55 lbs. (25 kg).
- Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) operations only; a drone must remain within VLOS of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS. Alternatively, the drone must remain within VLOS of the visual observer.
- The drone must, at all times, remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
- Drones may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle.
- Daylight-only operations, or civil twilight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset, local time) with appropriate anti-collision lighting.
- First-person view camera cannot satisfy “see-and-avoid” requirement, but can be used as long as requirement is satisfied in other ways.
- Maximum groundspeed of 100 mph (87 knots).
- Maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or, if higher than 400 feet AGL, remain within 400 feet of a structure.
- Minimum weather visibility of 3 miles from control station.
- Operations in Class B, C, D and E airspace are allowed with the required ATC permission.
- Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without ATC permission.
- No person may act as a remote pilot in command or VO for more than one drone operation at one time.
- No drone operations from a moving vehicle unless the operation is over a sparsely populated area.
- No careless or reckless operations.
- No carriage of hazardous materials.
- Requires preflight inspection by the remote pilot in command.
- A person may not operate a drone if he or she knows or has reason to know of any physical or mental condition that would interfere with the safe operation of a small UAS.
- External load operations are allowed if the object being carried by the unmanned aircraft is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft.
- A person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command).
Most of the restrictions of Part 107 set forth above are waivable if the applicant demonstrates that his or her operation can safely be conducted under the terms of a certificate of waiver. Currently the FAA has issued over 300 Part 107 waivers. While most of those waivers have been for night operations, the full list of waivers granted and how to apply for such a waiver can be found here.