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Drones: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) clears the way for Aerial Inspections

It seems like a long time coming, but the change to federal regulations is finally law as of August 29, 2017. Section 107 has been released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and with their Advisory Circular they make clear that those who wish to use drones for aerial inspections are in business.

There were two sticking points in the initial rules published earlier this year. The first challenge was the prohibition against flying drones above any person not directly involved in the operation of the drone. The second potential challenge was drones being required to remain within the visual line of sight (VLOS) of its operator at all times.

On the surface, these rules restrict the usefulness of drones in conducting building inspections. It would be inevitable that a drone would disappear from the operator’s sight, even if for a short time period, if it was being used to photograph a roof. It would also be impractical to think that buildings would be evacuated to accommodate the use of an inspection drone.

The Advisory Circular released addresses both concerns. There is a specific example cited for rooftop inspections, acknowledging that an operator would likely lose sight of the aircraft for brief periods. Operators are cautioned to keep these time periods short and reminded that even though they may lose sight of their ‘aircraft,’ they are still responsible for avoiding collisions.

The prohibition against flying over bystanders is also clarified. If persons are inside structures or vehicles, they are considered adequately protected. As for operating over a more public area, while the FAA clearly states its preference for sparsely populated or unpopulated areas (think farm fields), it will allow flights if the operating area is cordoned off or the public otherwise steered clear. With the nimble operation these vehicles can achieve, it’s possible to barricade or rope off a small area adjacent to a building, fly the drone directly up and complete a full inspection of the roof, respecting the guidelines. If the inspection is to include the area under the eaves of the building, a rope cordon establishing a safe zone around the building would be suggested.

The benefit of this technology is obvious. Instead of sending employees up on roofs or asking them to climb ladders to determine what needs to be repaired, a drone can be used. For an average cost of $500.00, a unit fitted with a high-definition camera can stream real-time videos either to the operator on the ground or to the property manager in the office across town, or both. Battery power ensures that inspection of an entire complex can be accomplished in hours. Now, an accurate and complete punch list of repairs can be prepared in less time and at less risk to employees.

So, what do you need to know to get in step with drones?

There are some key limitations. For example, the drone can’t be over fifty-five (55) pounds, including the camera and anything else it carries. For example, you can have the drone carry and deliver items such as transporting a screwdriver or hammer to the roof, as long as you don’t exceed the weight restriction.

Height and speed restrictions are another consideration. Operators are warned they can’t fly their drones in excess of 100 miles an hour, and it’s suggested that users outfit their drones with speedometers to determine air speed if this is a concern. Height is an area that could be more problematic, although with current rules, is seems unlikely. Users are warned drones can’t fly higher than 400 feet, which translates to 40 stories. However, if the operator is using the drone to inspect a building, and the building is taller than 400 feet, then the operator’s height restriction is determined as being 400 feet from the roof of the building.

Drones need to be registered, and the FAA has an on-line site to do that. Unlike recreational, or hobby drones, commercial or business use drones must be individually registered. There is a five dollar ($5.00) fee for each drone, and this needs to be renewed every other year. You will be provided a number that must be affixed to the drone, and the operator should have the drone’s registration certificate with them whenever they are flying the unit.

In addition, you need at least one person on your staff to attend and pass the Aeronautical Knowledge Test. The initial course must be taken at one of the FAA’s accredited training centers. There are several centers in each state and an appointment is necessary. The FAA maintains lists and contact information on their website. Once the initial course is successfully completed, your employee can apply for their Remote Pilot Certification. This is done either on-line (recommended) or can be done through use of a paper application process. This remote pilot can supervise others in operating drones, as long as the certified person can assume control of the unit if needed.

The FAA will require a regular recertification (Recurrent Aeronautical Knowledge Test), and at least for now, that will require in-person training at the FAA approved training center.

It’s important to recognize that the FAA considers drones to be unmanned aircraft. How that translates for you is that it is suggested you keep a maintenance log for your drones. If the manufacturer has suggested a regular maintenance routine, you should document it as well as your steps to maintain your drone. You are reminded to conduct physical pre-flight inspections and if you have a ‘serious’ accident with your drone (strike a person causing visible injury or cause over $500.00 in property damage), you are required to report that accident to the FAA.

Of course, you should also inform your insurance provider. Most policies do not automatically cover drones, and standard general liability policies automatically exclude claims arising from unmanned aircraft. If you are considering making this technology a part of your tool chest, let us know.

If you have questions about the information provided in this article, please contact Lynn R. Crisci, CPCU, ARM.