Commercial Drones in the Construction Industry

By Tennessee Construction Lawyers | July 17, 2017

Better enjoy those long lunches while they last. According to a recent article in the Economist, commercial drones may soon find their way to a job site near you as a means of improving efficiency and safety in the construction field. Goldman Sachs has run the numbers and predicts that $100 billion will likely be spent on military and civilian drones between 2016 and 2020. Of that, it estimates that construction will be the fastest growing segment of the commercial drone market, representing an almost $11.2 billion industry by 2020.

As those in the industry are well aware, one small mistake early on in a project can have dire consequences for a contractor or owner, often causing projects to go over budget and result in significant delays. To tackle this issue and the likely lawsuit that comes with it, the Economist article profiles how companies have already begun utilizing drones to discover and correct mistakes in almost real time.

For instance, early on in a project, drones may be utilized to streamline the process of grading. While the conventional method of grading can take several weeks to survey the topography on a large site, the Economist article notes that drones can perform a topographic survey in half an hour, with a 3D model ready the next day, which is not only cost-effective, but also allows for the site to be easily re-graded as needed to ensure accuracy.

Once construction is underway, the Economist article explains how drones can provide real time measurements to ensure that the erection of a structure is going according to plan. A single drone flight can obtain as much as 100 gigabytes of data, which can then be incorporated into a 3D site model, accurate to within a few centimeters, to compare with the digital model of the structure. According to the Economist article, companies in China are already flying drones over building sites at night, which is currently prohibited in the US, to measure progress on a daily basis.

How quickly drones can be incorporated into your construction site, however, will likely depend on the development of rules and regulations by the FAA. The recently enacted part 107 rules is a significant step forward from the FAA’s initial “no commercial application” approach to consumer drones, allowing operators that obtain a remote-pilot certificate to fly a drone for commercial purposes (1) during the day, (2) within line of site, (3) in uncontrolled airspace, and (4) without flying over people not involved in operating the drone.

According to Greg McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University who advises the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on drone regulation, the next several years will likely be busy for the FAA as it refines the rules relating to commercial use. Later this year, the FAA is set to issue rules dealing with flight over people and remote identification of drones. An aviation attorney is also focusing on these changes and keeping abreast of the drone regulation for future clients. The FAA will then tackle issues surrounding the control of multiple drones by a single operator, “extended visual line of sight operation” over long distances, night operation, and ultimately flights with no visual line of sight.

With at least one college course already being offered on how to integrate drones into the construction industry, expect commercial drones to become a familiar sight on construction projects in the near future.

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