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Do's and don'ts for operating drones

Some estimate 85-90% of drone operators aren’t FAA certified under the agency’s Part 107 rules or aren’t covered by liability insurance.

March 08, 2017 |

Drones shot video to document the test of a fall-protection system at Level 10 Construction’s 181 Fremont high-rise project in San Francisco. In this case, the system protected an active daycare center on the roof next door. Courtesy Level 10 Construction.

In January, Skypan International, an aerial photography company, agreed to pay $200,000 to settle FAA allegations that it flew 65 illegal drone flights above New York and Chicago from 2012 to 2014.

Even though the FAA has broadened its parameters for operating drones, Garrett Hurley, whose firm, SD Aerial Media, San Diego, has shot footage on construction sites using drones, is convinced that 85-90% of drone operators aren’t FAA certified under the agency’s Part 107 rules or aren’t covered (as his firm is) by liability insurance. 

At Autodesk University in Las Vegas last November, two virtual design coordinators from Brasfield & Gorrie, Hunter Cole and Jesse Creech, shared useful best practices for operating drones: 

  • Ensure the aircraft is registered with FAA, and the operator is certified. Under the FAA’s new rules, an operator no longer needs a pilot’s license, but must pass a background check and a 60-question test to be certified as a remote drone operator. 
  • Schedule flights at times when the fewest nonessential personnel will be present. FAA rules restrict flying over areas with people who aren’t involved in the construction or drone operation. 
  • Verify that the airspace isn’t restricted. Flights can’t be closer than five nautical miles to an airport or two nautical miles to a heliport. Verify weather conditions, which ideally should be clear with winds <10 mph.
  • Secure permission for the flight from the project team and property owner, preferably a week in advance.
  • Plan flight missions with all relevant data.
  • Before flights, perform a hardware inspection of the drone to identify potential safety hazards like overhead wires or vertical structures.
  • Record as much imagery as possible. Fly at the lowest possible altitude to get the best image quality. Amplify the photo overlap, which can help the software in registering the model. Supplement areas of interest with “angled” photos. 
  • Bring extra batteries. Most batteries can power drones for only about 20 minutes.
  • Before leaving the job site, field-verify that you got what you came for, and that the UAS obtained a reasonable amount of photos.
  • Put together an operations manual, says Trevor Wichmann, Senior Director with drone software provider Skyward.
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