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In about the time it takes for you to enjoy your morning cup of coffee, we can use our company drone to complete a 50-acre site survey, take aerial video and photos, and send a full report directly to a client’s email. That is astonishing! Technology certainly has made its way into every aspect of our daily life, especially in the construction and real estate industries.

Construction is experiencing a bit of a renaissance by way of data, production tools, and virtual collaboration. Drones have become an essential tool for construction teams and developers because of their low cost, high benefit, and ease of use. Drone technology has been greatly developed over the last five years, almost to the point where drones can literally fly themselves. The regulations are also evolving at lightning speed. This article should get you up to speed on where to start, how to fly legally with your commercial operation, and how to avoid any issues once you are up and running.

I don’t know about you, but I have a love/hate relationship with technology. It can be something new to learn or another gadget to update/maintain, but at the end of the day, it’s just really cool, especially when it works like a charm. Whenever you are adding a piece of technology to your business practice, you’ll often do a return on investment analysis. Will this device save me money? What time is saved by implementing this technology? For us, the drone analysis was simple. Our clients were paying $750 for each session/flight for aerial photography on multiple projects each month via helicopter or airplane photographers. The cost was justified because of the cost of equipment, fuel, airplane/helicopter costs, etc. On the flip side, we did an analysis on the entire cost of investing in drones: training our people, buying drones, and becoming licensed commercial pilots. We saw that with an investment of $1,000 (per drone + pilot), we could take unlimited aerial photographs and have them available whenever we want across multiple jobsites. On top of this, software such as Drone Deploy enables us to create mapping of our sites and our buildings, something that traditional aerial photography couldn’t provide.

We decided to make the investment and have two licensed pilots and two drones in the Air Mowery Fleet. We have found it to have great benefits in our day-to-day business. We are using drones on a weekly basis for almost all of our construction projects. We use the photos to communicate progress in the field with our clients and subcontractors via our project management software. The drone is almost the only way to capture the vast nature of the work, especially since some of our distribution projects are over 1 million square feet. On certain projects which require a lot of earth moving, we will fly our drone, create a topographical map, and be able to compare with previous grades to determine exactly how much earth is moved. We can compare the volume of earth moved and the rates with our project schedule to see if we are actually on schedule or not. This has been a game changer.

Major Drone Uses In Construction And Real Estate Today:

  • Tracking site/building progress
  • 3-D modeling
  • Surveying and mapping
  • Aerial video/photography
  • Measurement
  • Envelope inspections (roofing/walls)

How Do I Become A Pilot?
If you are interested in becoming a Licensed Commercial Drone Pilot, you can definitely do it! As someone who has taken several credentialed exams, the FAA Part 107 License Exam (Unmanned Aircraft Pilot) was one of the easiest. The average study time is about 50 hours and there are a ton of resources out there to make it accessible even for a novice. I personally benefitted from an online course (www.dronepilotgroundschool.com) which led me through each of the sections both via video/lecture and written syllabus.

Once you have put in your time studying the material, the next priority is to take the exam. Fortunately, there are several testing centers in Pennsylvania. The closest one in Central Pennsylvania is located at the Capitol City Airport – Roth Computerized Testing Center (200 Airport Rd. Suite 200 / (717) 914- 0988). While sitting for the exam, you’re allowed to use The FAA-CT-8080-2G, Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement for Sport Pilot, Recreational Pilot, and Private Pilot. It contains the graphics necessary to assist in answering any question on a UAG exam referring to a figure, map, weather report, etc.

 There Are Four Main Exam Sections:

  1. Drone Laws & FAA Regulations
  2. Weather & Micrometeorology
  3. National Airspace System (NAS)
  4. Drone Flight Operations

Tips For Passing The UAS Part 107 Exam:

  • Get to know how to prepare for your flight (create your own checklist).
  • Know how to communicate with your local airports and airmen.
  • Get to know the critical weather definitions and weather patterns.
  • Study the maps and understand the legends.
  • Find a study partner.
  • Take your sample exams. Whatever sections you score weak in, re-study them and re-take the sample exams.
  • Watch YouTube videos on exam preparation.

Here Is My Recommended Starter Kit – Around $1,000

  • DJI Phantom 3 Standard Drone $500
  • Training course $400 (Optional)
  • Exam – Part 107 FAA Airman Certificate $150
  • Insurance – Either $10 per flight via Verifly.com or your current insurance provider

Before You Fly
If I leave you with one thing from this article, it is that drones should be taken very seriously. While they look and feel very much like a toy (you can even buy my recommended drone at Best Buy), they are not. Failure to fly them safely can result in serious ramifications, such as damage to property, bodily injury, or even death. The Federal Aviation Administration considers all pilots and aircraft the same. They have provided some very valuable resources for current or potential pilots at https://www.faa.gov/uas/.

My goal in writing this article is to educate, promote, and encourage others to get their own pilot’s license.

A Few Items To Keep In Mind Prior To Your First Flight:
1.) Your drone must be registered with the FAA.
2.) If you are flying for construction or real estate purposes (even just for photography),
you need a license to fly (FAA Part 107).
3.) You should know how to fly safely under all circumstances.

Preparation before each and every flight makes all the difference in the world. A pre-flight survey is an essential part of each pilot’s flight. This will allow you to get a lay of the land, assess hazards, and plan your flight path and take-off and landing points. During flight, it is critical to remember to maintain line of sight of your drone at all times. This can be quite difficult across large sites and varying weather conditions (even bright sunny days) but it will enable you to avoid incidents with obstacles or other flying objects.

 Three Key Indicators Can Tell You When You CANNOT FLY:

  • Restricted airspace
  • Bad weather
  • Risky locations

Critical Flight Tips:

  • Be prepared and be aware: Follow a pre-flight checklist each and every time.
  • For most drones, there are short flight times (15-30 min) due to battery sizing/weight. You may need multiple batteries.
  • Do not fly over people or cars, which can limit the footage that can be obtained.
  • It takes practice, at least 100 hours of flight to get good at taking footage.
  • Take continuing education on the technology, photography, lenses, etc. YouTube is a valuable resource.
  • Editing takes twice the time as flying/recording. Learning a new video editing software can be equally challenging, but you can send raw footage to an outsourced company for composition, branding, etc.

The future of commercial drones is exciting and scary at the same time. Drones are getting smaller, carrying more substantial loads, flying farther, and becoming safer all the time. I cannot even imagine how different they will be in the next 5 to10 years. I recently learned of a start-up company, Zipline, which has partnered with the Republic of Rwanda to deliver blood and other critical medical supplies to remote parts of the country. This operation is cutting delivery times from four hours to 30 minutes, resulting in more lives saved. I foresee drones continuing to evolve to the point where they truly fly themselves, provide more data, deliver everyday products within minutes of ordering, and more.

 Here Are Some Other Emerging Uses For Drones:

  • Firefighting (controlled burning or extinguishing)
  • Live broadcast feeds
  • First-person tours of jobsites (streaming drone camera feeds)
  • 360-degree cameras (immersive, virtual reality)
  • Infrared cameras to detect envelope performance on buildings (or detect humans or animals)
  • Deliveries
  • Security assessment
  • Passenger vehicles (Personal flying aircraft)
  • Conservation, hunting and fishing applications
  • Cinema
  • Sports/Racing

At the end of the day, I find that flying a drone can be quite peaceful. It provides a wonderful bird’s-eye vantage point of our projects which cannot be conveyed by any other means. I immensely enjoy drone piloting, and we enjoy sharing the photography with our clients. That is not to say that is isn’t serious business. It requires attention to detail and a priority on safety. I encourage you get your own UAS pilot’s license and explore the possibilities with drones. Please enjoy, share, and fly safe.

William J. Sutton, II

William J. Sutton, II

Mowery

William J. Sutton, II was recently named Vice President of Business Development for Mowery. Prior to this promotion, Bill worked in various areas of construction from estimating to project management. He graduated from Catholic University with a degree in Civil Engineering with a concentration in Construction Management. He holds several industry credentials such as LEED AP, Certified Healthcare Contractor and the commercial drone pilots license (Unmanned Aircraft Systems- Part 107). He has led the charge for Mowery in their integration of various technological innovations which include the usage of Drones, 360 Degree Cameras for Photos/Videos/VR, Mobile Tech Centers for Jobsite Collaboration and Procore (Cloud Based Project Management Software). When he isn’t flying his drone (has logged over 100 flights), he is spending time with his family and coaching his two children, Connor and Molly, in various sports and activities. You can reach him at (717) 506-1000 or wsutton@rsmowery.com.