Drones and Inspections

 

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, are legal for people to fly for recreational use.  Mounted with cameras, drones are also being used for surveillance, emergency rescue, fire safety, disaster management, and even filmmaking.  The applications for home and commercial property inspections are numerous, such as for inspecting roofs (especially those with several pitches), as well as getting a bird's-eye view of the surrounding property.  Some home inspectors have said that they’re currently experimenting with low-flying drones mounted with video cameras.

However, without the consent of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the form of a Special Airworthiness Certificate or similar approval, it is illegal to operate drones for commercial purposes—which would include home inspections—with the FAA citing safety concerns.

Unfortunately for the home inspection industry, the FAA is so far behind in developing standards for the commercial use of drones that it may be some time before they can be used legally, despite the FAA having been directed to come up with standards by September 2015, in accordance with current laws.  

A report released in June 2014 by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Assistant Inspector General for Aviation Matthew Hampton states that the FAA is “significantly behind schedule” and hasn’t determined the type of technology that drones should implement to avoid colliding with other aircraft, as well as to be able to maintain uninterrupted communication with ground control stations.

Public safety is the FAA’s primary concern.  Obviously, private and commercial aircraft, as well as news, medical and law enforcement helicopters should not have to compete with drones for the same airspace.  Hobbyists are directed by the FAA to follow a list of “Do’s and Don’ts,” which includes not flying drones near manned aircraft, keeping the drone in site while in operation,  and not flying drones greater than 55 pounds unless it's certified by an aero-modeling community-based organization. 

The FAA also dictates that drones cannot be used for payment or commercial purposes.  And this is the the sticking point for inspectors and other business owners. 

Larger companies and utilities have been granted permission by the FAA to operate commercial drones, such as BP, which uses them to inspect pipelines in Alaska, and San Diego Gas & Electric, which was the first utility in the U.S. to be approved for limited use of drones to conduct research, testing and training flights in low-density residential airspace.

While the FAA continues to develop safety standards on its own timeline, it may be forced to accelerate its efforts, owing to three lawsuits filed on behalf of organizations that are challenging the FAA’s recently published Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.  According to one of the lawsuits, the FAA’s current restrictions on drone operation using “first-person view” technology pose “a grave threat to science, research, education, and technological innovation across the United States.”

Unless these pending lawsuits, filed in August 2014, push the FAA to expedite the development and rollout of standards that will hinder private and commercial drone operators with fewer restrictions, it will be some time until drones are declared legal across the board for commercial use in the United States. 

But the FAA is making progress.  In August 2014, it announced that the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) test site program was “ready to conduct research vital to integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace.”  The Virginia Polytechnic site is the last of six nationwide to be declared operational to observe simulated accidents on “smart road” highways, aeronautical surveys of agriculture, agricultural spray equipment testing, and, perhaps most significantly, the development of aeronautical procedures for the integration of UAS flights in a towered airspace.

Popular Drone Model Specifications

Here are some of the popular models with mounted video equipment:

The Parrot AR. Drone 2.0:  Wi-Fi controlled using a smartphone or tablet
Cost: $300
Weight: 4 lbs
Dimensions: 23 x 5 x 23 inches
Battery life/flight time: 12 minutes
Camera: HD 720p resolution

DJI Phantom 2 Vision Quadcopter with Integrated FPV Camcorder
Cost: $999
Weight: 2.6 lbs
Diagonal Length: 13.78 inches
Battery life/flight time: 25 minutes
Camera: HD 1080p resolution
Range: 300 m

Blade 180 QX Bind-N-Fly Quadcopter with camera
Cost: $160
Weight: 23 lbs
Dimensions: 11.5 x 11.5 x 3 inches
Battery life/flight time: 5-10 minutes
Camera: HD 720P resolution

For More Information

For more information, visit the FAA’s page on Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which includes details on how to obtain approval for their use: http://www.faa.gov/uas/