Drones are revolutionizing the way construction work is done. But buyer beware—not all drones and drone operators are created equal. We talked to Josh Friedman, Owner of One Zero Digital Media, and he gave us 8 important questions to consider when hiring a drone operator.
1. Is the Operator Certified?
Commercial drone operators must have a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 Certification to work legally. To be clear, commercial use does not only imply an exchange of money. Even if the operator is your brother or sister-in law working for free, they need to be certified. When interviewing an operator, always ask to see their certification. If not, the FAA can impose an $11K fine on your company plus a fine to the drone operator.
2. Does the Operator Have Insurance?
This is really important. Even though it is not the law, if an accident occurs, you and the operator could be liable. Never hire someone that does not have at least a $1M liability policy per drone. Always ask to see the pilot’s insurance policy. Drone liability insurance typically costs $500-800 a year per drone, so every operator should have insurance or risk the consequences. It is also important to make sure that the drone on the policy is the drone being used. This can be verified with the FAA Registration number which is also required to be labeled somewhere on the drone.
3. Do They Have Samples of Their Work?
Quality and experience vary from one operator to the next. In order to make sure that the operator has experience with the kind of work you are looking for, ask for specific samples. For instance, if you need a 3D model of a site, ask for that. The same goes for videos or photos, or if they are using LIDAR or another sensor. You may not get the quality you are looking for if they lack prior experience. Shop around— it’s ok to be picky.
4. Can the Operator Do Surveying or Inspection Work?
To perform surveying work in most states, surveyors are supposed to obtain a state-approved license. The same may apply to inspectors. A good drone operator will know his or her limitations and may team up with a certified surveyor or inspection company to get the work done properly.
5. Which Drones Do They Use?
As we said above, not all drones are the same. Like a boat or a diamond, there are different grades. Important factors include the quality of the drone, the software being used, and the use of the appropriate payload for the job. A payload is anything attached to the drone, and it typically has some sort of sensor on it that collects data. Payloads are often cameras for videography or photography, but commercial drones may also carry LIDAR systems, air quality sensors, infrared cameras, drop systems and more. Professional grade drones can cost $8K+ in addition to the cost of the payload. Although DJI, a Chinese-based company, sells most of the commercial (and hobby) drones in the industry, there are dozens of American-made drones that may be more fitting for a specific job.
6. How Accurate is Their Work?
Most commercial and professional drones are accurate to only 4 to 5 feet due to limitations in standard GPS. In construction, you will typically need survey grade accuracy of 1 to 3 centimeters. A drone operator will need to either work with a surveyor or have Real Time Kinematic (RTK) GPS or Post Processed Kinematic (PPK) GPS built into the drone or on the ground.
7. Can They Fly in the Required Airspace?
Make sure the pilot in command has checked the airspace prior to flight. The FAA currently has a system in place called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) which allows drone pilots to request permission to fly in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D and E) with near instant authorizations in most areas. Class G is uncontrolled airspace, and pilots can fly without further authorization up to 400 feet. LAANC can give approval in most areas around an airport, but not in airspace closest to the airport nor in other flight restricted zones such as prisons, military bases, and Disneyland. These restricted zones are considered “no-fly zones” and require additional authorization from the airport control tower or the FAA. Most drones have geofencing technology and won’t start up inside no-fly zones. In most cases, this can be removed on a per flight basis with the correct approvals.
8. Are They Following the FAR 107 Laws?*
FAR 107 is the section of laws created by the FAA for drone pilots. Make sure the pilot is following these laws to the best of his/her ability.
Drone pilots must be able to see the drone at all times.
They must observe all height restrictions.
They can’t fly over people or moving motor vehicles.
They have to yield to manned aircraft.
Night flights are only allowed with a “daylight waiver” and have specific guidelines which are approved by the FAA on a per pilot basis. If you want night ops, make sure your pilot can show you his or her daylight waiver.
*Note: These laws are for the US. Other countries have their own rules.
All in all, this is a lot to consider, but it is all very important if you want professional results.