Legal Drone Operation Creates Opportunities for Contractors

It is possible to fly commercial unmanned aerial vehicles legally, and contractors are already measuring benefits using drone photos in inspection, management and marketing

The UAS has proven its worth as an inspection tool. “We are really trying to eliminate the need for us to put people in boom lifts or anything that gets their feet off the ground,” says Aaron Phillips with Danis. “The more we can minimize our people being up in the air, the safer we are making it for them. Also it helps eliminate site congestion with big, heavy equipment that has to lift people up and get people where they need to be for inspection.”
The UAS has proven its worth as an inspection tool. “We are really trying to eliminate the need for us to put people in boom lifts or anything that gets their feet off the ground,” says Aaron Phillips with Danis. “The more we can minimize our people being up in the air, the safer we are making it for them. Also it helps eliminate site congestion with big, heavy equipment that has to lift people up and get people where they need to be for inspection.”

Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs), commonly referred to as "drones," are valuable tools that often have a negative stigma attached due to media coverage of careless and illegal operation. But in reality, these small aircraft hold a lot of untapped potential with contractors constantly discovering new applications.

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Danis Building Construction is a third generation Dayton, OH,-based company specializing in public and private building and industrial projects. The company performs construction management, construction, design/build and MEP Mechanical/Electrical/Plumbing) commissioning and currently has $500 million under construction with a staff of approximately 350 employees.

Danis received FAA approval for the operation of a small UAS on April 3. Since then, the company has found several applications. The original idea to utilize UAS technology was brought up during a project at the Dayton Children’s Hospital. “Our senior project manager and myself were sitting down talking about how we were potentially going to be installing exterior façade in some hard to get places and how we would gain access for inspections,” says Aaron Phillips, director of virtual design and construction at Danis. “I had been following along with the UAS conversation for a while and said it would be nice if we could fly a drone up there and take pictures.”

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The UAS has proven its worth as an inspection tool. “We are really trying to eliminate the need for us to put people in boom lifts or anything that gets their feet off the ground,” says Phillips. “The more we can minimize our people being up in the air, the safer we are making it for them. Also it helps eliminate site congestion with big, heavy equipment that has to lift people up and get people where they need to be for inspection.”

Marketing communications has been a side benefit. “Clients absolutely fell in love with the ability to use these images in marketing and communications within their internal staff as well as their external constituents,” says Phillips. One example of the marketing opportunity has been at the Dayton Children’s Hospital project. “We have been using this to communicate with the kids in the hospital about the cool things we are doing on the construction site. It has been really neat to see the interaction between the kids and our construction teams.”

The UAS has proven to be a link to promote a progressive, mindful communication extension with the community as well. “It adds a level of transparency to the project that we couldn't have possibly done before. It keeps people engaged and really motivated," says Phillips. It allows better communication on the progress of the project, which is an application that came as a little bit of a surprise to Danis. “We didn’t fully expect this as another connection point with our clients.”

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Milwaukee, WI,-based Menet Aero Inc. also recently received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide commercial unmanned aircraft system, or drone, services. The goal of the company is to provide organizations a safe, legal and effective resource for UAS services. The owner, Peter Menet, flies Blackhawk helicopters for the Wisconsin Army National Guard. “This is an opportunity where I can leverage my aviation background and my understanding of the rules and regulations to offer people access to this technology,” Menet says.

Get Legal

However, the use of UAS devices is still under heavy regulation. The first step is to get legal. “In the market we build in, there are actually a lot of contractors flying UASs illegally,” says Phillips. “We tend to be more conservative. We pride ourselves in our safety record. We would never want to jeopardize that because we were trying to chase something a little too fast or a little too foolishly.”

Any UAS being used for commercial applications currently needs an approved exemption from the FAA. While there is currently a final rule for small UAS in the works, you currently need to file a Section 333 exemption to fly legally since all commercial aircraft essentially fall under the same set of rules.

“I think everybody initially had this idea that you could just give everybody a drone and they can go fly it and it is not going to be a problem,” Menet says. “The reason that the FAA is so concerned about this is that operators who don’t understand airspace and don’t understand where aircraft are likely to be and not likely to be are now launching these drones. They have already had several close calls at places like LaGuardia and JFK.” Then there was the more recent incident in California where firefighters were not able to access a fire due to the drone traffic. “The FAA is rightly concerned that this technology could be very dangerous," Menet adds.

Until the new rule on small UASs is published, operators will have to work within the constraints of current aviation law. “In the eyes of the FAA, an aircraft is an aircraft,” explains Menet. “So all of the laws that apply to a regular aircraft now apply to a UAS.” This includes such rules as having a manual in the cockpit. “The only way you can get permission right now to operate civilly is with a Section 333 exemption.” This means you need to identify specific sections of the law that you believe shouldn’t apply to you, state why they should not apply and tell them how you will provide an equivalent level of safety.

Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) grants the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether an airworthiness certificate is required for a UAS to operate safely in the National Airspace System (NAS).

This authority is being leveraged to grant case-by-case authorization for certain unmanned aircraft to perform commercial operations prior to the finalization of the Small UAS Rule, which will be the primary method for authorizing small UAS operations once it is complete.

Both Danis Building Construction and Menet Aero Inc. used the knowledge of a licensed commercial aviator to successfully navigate the FAA requirements and receive Section 333 exemptions. For Danis, they had an MPE coordinator by the name of Rob Mauro who previously served as a Marine Corp. Super Cobra helicopter pilot. “He was actually a flight commander," Phillips says. "So he had an understanding of how to create standard operating procedures, how to operate safely, how to de-conflict with folks in the U.S. airspace. He had an amazing amount of knowledge.”

The first step was to contact the FAA “We reached out to the FAA to find out what we could do and what we couldn’t do,” Phillips says. “At that time we knew there were a lot of people who were making pretty bad judgement calls as far as where and when to fly. They were causing trouble and really starting to develop a bad reputation for integrating UASs into the national airspace. We obviously did not want to do that.

“Rob started a conversation with the local regional FAA representative that led us to the understanding of what we needed to do to create an exemption letter. We submitted our FAA exemption at the end of October.”

The FAA then contacted Danis for a few clarifications and information. “We were able to get them answers pretty easily," Phillips says. "They were pretty simple questions. What is the top speed? What is the weight? What is the weight of the camera? They had our standard operating procedure, so they had a lot of information right there."

Phillips explains that it was an advantage having Rob on board. “He was able to create standard operating procedures and flight planning that really keep us out of trouble. For instance, we know our UAS is capable of a certain speed. That allows us to plan if there are gusty winds. We know a factor of safety that will still allow us to return home if a sudden storm picks up. The reason we know this is because Rob has a lot of flight experience, understanding that there is a max speed, but then there is a safe operating speed.”

Danis had a rare opportunity to gain insight into the whole process as their exemption letter was actually featured in the congressional debates of how to integrate drone into the national airspace. “We got to see a living diagram of how people were evaluating our exemption," Phillips says. "One group would claim something would not work while the other group would find where the solution was addressed in the document."

It is important to note that you don’t necessarily have to start from scratch when drafting a Section 333. For instance, consider how Danis approached the letter. “Rob had used some examples of past exemption letters to help structure all of our letters,” Phillips says. The initial letter was submitted in late October and the Section 333 exemption was granted on April 3.

Menet used his experience as a military aviator experienced a similar timetable. “It took almost six months to get the exemption approved. You essentially get no feedback during this process.”

One thing to note is that the exemption will cover one aircraft. “Unfortunately, because of the way Section 333 was written, the FAA specifically needs to know which aircraft you are operating," Menet adds. "Once you have been granted the exemption you can add other aircraft later, but it goes through the same process all over again.”

Understand Proper Use

The Section 333 exemption does not grant you freedom to simply go to work. “Once you get your exemption, that is more or less a permission slip,” Menet says. “You now have the ability to operate legally, but you still have to work out air space with local air space owners.”

Small UASs are subject to many rules that govern model aircraft, such as a 400-ft. ceiling limitation. But the UASs also require a Certificate of Authorization (COA), similar to other commercial aircraft. “The Certificate of Authorization is a handshake between you and the air space operators that you are going to be operating in their area," Menet says. "They have generated a nationwide 200 ft. and below COA. It allows you to operate at 200 ft. and below.” If you are in a rural area, this allows you to simply call a flight service station and file a notice to airmen.

“But there are still a bunch of areas where you cannot fly," Menet adds. "You cannot fly in restricted areas. You cannot fly within five miles of a towered airport.”

To operate in many of these areas you will need to negotiate a separate COA with the air space owner. This can be done. For example, Danis Building Construction is located close to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “We have a couple of projects that are pretty close to their air space,” Phillips says. “Being a military base, we wanted to interface with them.”

Danis just wanted to open a dialog and explore the possibility of operating with their permission. “We went in fully expecting a no answer, and we were fine with that. But they decided to leverage us to show others how to do it," Phillips says. "They had a few instances where people were flying without permission in their air space and it caused a few aborted takeoffs and landings.”

So it is possible to operate even in more urban areas, but it takes a little more diligence and working closely with the owners of the local air space to ensure everyone’s safety.

Start-up Costs

The price of the UAS is usually what makes this technology so attractive.

“We purchased a DJI Phantom Vision II Plus,” Phillips says. “It seemed to be one of the more stable platforms available at the time. It might have lacked on a few features, but since we were just starting out, we wanted something that had a lot of safety built into it.”

This UAS had a GPS lock that allowed it to return home if the radio connection was lost and it was able to hold position without straying off path. “Plus it is a smaller, lighter weight drone that already has a camera attached to it that we feel is good enough, especially for our first go around with these," Phillips says. "For the total kit combined, and that was with a big pelican case to store it in, a few extra blades, extra batteries to extend flight times, we spent a total of $1,700. The drone itself was about $1,200.”

But the cost of the equipment was actually the least expensive part of the using the UAS. “The biggest investment is the time we spent educating our owners, educating our staff and trying to make sure everyone understands what we are trying to accomplish,” Phillips says. “The technology is really the least expensive part. I think that is true for any technology adoption.” 

Insuring the UAS has not been an issue for Danis Construction. “It has fallen under our general insurance,” Phillips says. “It has been considered a tool that we cover the same way we cover the rest of our equipment.”

Menet also has his UASs insured and cautions others about the dangers of illegal operation. “Almost all insurance companies want to know if you are operating legally. Most insurance policies have a clause that if you are doing something that is against the law it is constituted as a breach of trust and they will not enforce the policy.”

So if you are really interested in UAS technology, you have a couple of choices. If you want to start right way, you can either consult an expert to obtain the proper approvals and training or you can hire the service of a professional, such as Menet. Otherwise you can wait until the final UAS rule is published, possibly by the end of 2016 and then comply with those requirements.

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