General contractor Hensel Phelps won Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to fly over populated construction sites, the first such waiver granted to a company using parachute-equipped drones. Part 107 of FAA regulations generally prohibits operators from flying the small, unmanned aircraft over people without a waiver from the agency.
Using ParaZero’s SafeAir Parachute System, Hensel Phelps said it worked with the FAA for more than a year to ensure that the drones met the agency's safety concerns about flying drones over people. This is the first time, according to the administration, that the FAA has collaborated with the construction industry to develop a public standard and then used that standard to issue a waiver under Part 107.
The FAA did not certify or approve a specific parachute system but said that the ParaZero system is scalable and can be used by other applicants. Any company applying for a waiver like the one granted to Hensel Phelps still must provide testing data, documentation and a statement of compliance listed in ASTM3322-18, even if the firm is using the same drone-parachute combination.
It would be useful to most contractors to be able to fly drones over their jobsites while activity is in full swing, allowing them to make more observations of the work in progress, the number of people on site and more. However, Richard Lopez, Hensel Phelps VDC manager, told Commercial UAV News that even though the company secured a waiver, it will still avoid flying over people when possible and that its extensive safety protocols, in part, helped it win FAA approval.
When the FAA issued Part 107 regulations for drones in 2016, it stated that operators could apply for exemptions to the rules. At the time, Nancy Egan, general counsel at Wing and formerly of 3D Robotics, told Construction Dive that the initial rules would likely undergo revisions as industry applications of drones and new technologies expended their possibilities. Egan predicted that operations over people would be one of the most sought-after waivers.
Other restrictions on the operations of drones weighing less than 55 pounds at that time, which have also been subject to potential waivers, included:
- Operators must keep drones in their line of sight.
- A visual observer can be responsible for no more than one drone at a time.
- Drone operations are allowed in daylight hours only, including 30 minutes before official sunrise and 30 minutes after official sunset.
- Maximum drone speed is 100 mph.
- The maximum allowable altitude is 400 feet above the ground and higher if the drone remains within 400 feet of a structure.