Regulations to Know Before Starting a Construction Drone Program - Sachse Construction
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Regulations to Know Before Starting a Construction Drone Program

Switching from traditional base-and-rover surveying to drone surveying is one of the most effective ways to upgrade your construction workflow, setting you and your team up to make better, data-driven decisions.

Switching from traditional base-and-rover surveying to drone surveying is one of the most effective ways to upgrade your construction workflow, setting you and your team up to make better, data-driven decisions.

Drones are more efficient, shaving days or weeks off typical surveying time. Since today’s drones are cheaper and simpler to use than traditional surveying equipment, you’ll be able to capture onsite data more effectively without exorbitantly expensive surveying equipment. Drone imaging allows you to collect and analyze data whenever you need, and with the right processing software and ground control, you can achieve survey-grade accuracy throughout your site.

One of the biggest perceived obstacles to starting a drone program is airspace and flight regulations. These regulations are actually easy to follow, and by understanding a few key laws and processes, you’ll be collecting survey-grade data with drones in no time! To that end, this article will cover the following:

  • ​​What makes something a drone?
  • Registering your drone
  • Getting licensed to fly
  • Licensing resources (study guides, where to take the test)
  • Understanding where you can fly
  • Airspace restrictions
  • Special waivers

Commercial drone regulations

A drone is a type of aircraft, albeit a tiny one. All unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) are regulated by a country’s aviation authority, and rules around how, when, and if you can fly differ by country.

Each country and region has different UAV rules and regulations, with Australia and the EU introducing new regulations in 2021. For locations in the Asia Pacific region, refer to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s guidelines.

In the United States, each drone must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the FAADroneZone website, and every commercial drone operator must hold a current FAA Remote Pilot Certificate. This certificate is for anyone who makes money by flying a drone, including survey teams and photographers, and is meant to ensure that drone pilots have a basic understanding of what other commercial pilots are doing in the surrounding airspace.

The ‘Unmanned Aircraft General – Small (UAG)’ test to obtain the certificate is straightforward and involves a multiple-choice test with 60 questions centered around keywords and understanding a sectional chart, a specialized airspace map that doesn’t require GPS to be read. There are free practice tests online as well as multiple study guides you can use along the way. To take the actual test, simply establish an FAA tracking number and schedule a test time on the FAA website. Once you pass, fill out the FAA Form 8710-13, obtain your certificate, and renew every two years. You can access the full breakdown on how to become a drone pilot here.

Licensees operate under the FAA’s Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule, which has two major tenets: a drone must be kept within the operator’s visual line-of-sight and below 400 feet in altitude. These requirements can become difficult to follow when surveying large sites that may have dangerous topography or small spaces that are challenging for surveying teams to navigate. Luckily, the FAA can grant Part 107 waivers to individual surveyors or surveying teams, allowing them to bypass these requirements. To apply for a Part 107 waiver, applicants simply include a full description of how they use their drone and how the pilot will comply with specific performance-based standards. This waiver unlocks much more freedom in equipment use and is instrumental for larger construction sites.

A key best practice is to always check the rules surrounding the airspace in which you intend to fly, so you can conduct your first flight without issue. Finally, keep in mind that these regulations will differ between countries, so make sure to stay informed on the latest restrictions in your area.

Navigating restricted airspace

Once you obtain the necessary license and comprehend national regulations, understanding whether the airspace in which you intend to fly is restricted is another important step before beginning a drone program.

Airspace is the portion of the sky that’s controlled by a country above its territory. In the U.S., airspace is divided into six classes, which indicate its use and restrictions. For example, airspace at or below 2,500 feet near airports with control towers is Class D and it’s controlled, so you would need authorization before attempting to fly in this area. Without getting into the many airspace nuances and allowances, make sure you stay vigilant for the following when assessing your construction site:

  • If your site is near an airport or helipad
  • If your site is near a military base
  • If your site is in an urban environment

If you discover the airspace you need to fly in is controlled, you’ll need to gain additional authorization, usually from the airport or military.

If you’re looking to fly near one of 500 participating airports, you can get authorization via the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program, which will drastically cut down on the time spent waiting for authorization to fly drones in controlled airspace. All you need is to prove you’re operating within Part 107 regulations and flying under a certain height within a square mile of the airport, and you can get authorization immediately. You can obtain LAANC authorization through several FAA-partnered companies and apps, like AirMap.

Finally, if you’re using a DJI drone and have obtained a hardware unlock (which will tell the hardware of the drone it’s ok to fly) and airspace authorization waiver such as the LAANC, you can use the DJI Fly Safe portal to streamline the process of requesting to unlock restricted airspace, especially if you often fly in these zones.

Taking flight

Navigating drone licenses and regulations might seem daunting at first, but the steps to reach your first flight are clearly laid out, and the restrictions are straightforward. With your remote pilot license and a knowledge of the space in which you’ll be flying, you and your team can confidently take to the skies to obtain survey-grade site data in a fraction of the time.

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