Plans are in the works to use unmanned drones to keep an eye on construction sites, to take aerial photographs of homes that might help real estate agents sell them, to inspect oil pipelines and bridges, to monitor wildlife, and even to deliver small packages to homeowners’ doors.
They could be used to take overhead videos or still photos of weddings and other events, to spray crops, and to show time-released progression on buildings-in-progress.
A handful of contractors and real estate agents are already using the remote-controlled, miniature aircrafts to get the bird’s-eye view of their property. But the Federal Aviation Administration says it’s illegal to use drones for commercial purposes without a formal exception from the agency, which is drafting regulations for safety and privacy before opening the skies to the new devices.
Hobbyists may fly their drones, but they’re supposed to avoid restricted areas—like the airspace around airports and the White House, where a government employee’s personal quad-copter crashed on the lawn last month.
Following the rules
The National Association of Realtors has advised its members not to use drones until the FAA gives them the go-ahead.
The FAA reportedly will propose that drones weighing less than 55 pounds may fly no higher than 400 feet, and only during daylight. The proposed rule might also mandate that drone operators keep the remote-controlled devices in their sight while they’re in the air.
The rules could regulate the use of drones in areas where airplanes fly in the same space to prevent them from colliding with planes and to ensure pilots can detect and avoid them.
Once the FAA issues its rules—which agency officials have said won’t come until 2017—it won’t be long before drones are everywhere. In fact, the FAA has forecast that 10,000 commercial drones will be licensed by 2018.
Exceptions to the rule
The Washington Post reported that Congress may hurry those rules along, however, as the legal use of drones could create 100,000 jobs and bolster the economy by $82 million within the first 10 years.
In fact, the FAA in June granted the first commercial drone permit over land to BP oil company and drone manufacturer Aero-Vironment, which used the devices for aerial surveys over Alaska's North Slope, The Post reported.
In September, the FAA waived the commercial drone ban again for six Hollywood film makers so they could fly the devices on movie sets. Although government officials deemed the contained use of the drones as safe, The Post reported strife within the agency over the decision due to safety concerns.
Then, one of the on-set drones flew off course and was lost to its land-locked operators, only to be found the next day 100 yards from the movie set on a private ranch.
And in December, the agency allowed four companies—including commercial design/build contractor Clayco—to fly drones over their sites.
Since then, the FAA has received hundreds of requests from companies asking for exceptions so they can fly drones as well, The Post reported.
One of them came from Realtor Douglas Trudeau of Tucson, AZ, who became the first real estate agent to win an exemption permitting him to fly his quad-copter to take pictures and video of the houses he sells.
Trudeau has to obtain some certifications and pass a background check before he can start using his drone.
“This is not a toy,” Trudeau told Tucson News Now. “This is a flying machine, and with that comes a lot of responsibility.”
Not so fast
Drones might come in handy on job sites, but don’t expect the public to embrace their use right away.
An Associated Press-GfK opinion poll revealed that a majority of Americans are OK with the use of drones for dangerous jobs or in remote areas, but they don’t want them used for commercial projects.
Drone opponents outnumbered the supporters in the poll by two to one. Women and senior citizens were most likely to oppose the use of drones.
Poll participants said they favor government licensing and strict regulations for drones for two main reasons: They’re concerned about their privacy, and they don’t believe the people on the ground beneath the drones are entirely safe from mishaps with the newfangled equipment.
More than two-thirds of those in the poll said drone operators should have pilot’s licenses.
What if it crashes?
Just as they would any other vehicle, contractors and real estate agents who use drones to photograph or monitor their properties need to insure them. But construction companies might not be able to buy that coverage from the same companies that insure their job sites.
Although more insurance companies are starting to offer standardized coverage for drones, for now, fewer than five offer the coverage. As more climb on board, prices will deflate, Grant Goldsmith, vice president of Avalon Risk Management, told Engineering-News Record.
The policies will cover bodily injury and property damage in case of an accident, and damage to the device itself, Goldsmith said.