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Five Best Practices to Reduce Drone Risks on Construction Sites

As drones become commonplace on the construction jobsite, contractors can gather aerial data more frequently and at a lower cost. Drones can be used to improve safety conditions on the jobsite, especially by decreasing the amount of time workers spend at high elevations.

Early adopters of unmanned aviation, such as Hensel Phelps, are seeing the benefits of a new market and are rapidly discovering fresh use cases for the versatile technology. Hensel Phelps uses drones for:

  • generating cloud points for incorporation into building information modeling software, which it provides to architects;
  • photogrammetry, which provides valuable data to superintendents and jobsite managers;
  • cardinal direction views for clients and building owners;
  • LiDAR for surveying; and
  • FLIR for inspecting HVAC efficiency.

However, some risk management and legal teams may still express doubts that the positive aspects of drones outweigh the negatives. On the surface, a remotely operated flying object speeding over expensive construction equipment and vulnerable infrastructure can sound risky, and the regulatory framework is still lagging behind the technology—although the release of Part 107  14 CFR part 107 that addresses UAS classification, certification and operating rules made the laws less stringent and lowered barriers to entry.

When making the case for drones at a construction firm, it helps to highlight the ways that drones can make workflows safer and more efficient. It’s also vital to underscore how the perceived risks of unmanned aviation can be mitigated. Here are five best practices construction and engineering firms are using today to mitigate risks associated with drones.

1. Develop a Strong General Operating Manual

The term “unmanned aviation” is often used in reference to drones and for good reason—it indicates that operating a drone is another form of aviation, a field that has strict safety protocols and high standards.

For any type of commercial aviation, including drones, risk mitigation begins with a comprehensive general operating manual. Standard operating procedures are responsible for making traditional aviation safe—for example, commercial airlines around the world follow the same pre-flight checks—and it’s only natural to carry this over to unmanned flight.

By ensuring that every team and pilot follows standard operating procedures for every flight, firms establish a strong bedrock of accountability and decrease the variables that lead to human error. A general operating manual should contain checklists and procedures concerning pilot training protocols, equipment handling, maintenance, setup of the flight area, flight planning, regulatory information, data management and every other aspect of the drone operation.

2. Insurance Is a Must

No risk management expert would agree to fly anything on a job site without a general liability policy that protects assets against potential damages. There are policies available, and as the FAA provides greater clarity to the regulations, more carriers will likely enter the market. An important question to ask the insurance agent is “Can we get a good rate?” After all, paying a high premium for drone insurance could cut into the efficiency gains they offer.

To obtain drone insurance, firms need to be able to show that they have taken proactive steps to mitigate risks as much as possible. Regulators want to see there is a loss control program, which reduces the odds of an incident and limits its severity. Having a strong general operating manual is one way of demonstrating this to insurers. Another is keeping detailed records of flights and operations, which goes a long way to prove professionalism—and brings with it other advantages.

3. Keep Detailed and Centralized Records

Strong record-keeping practices should not only satisfy the insurance provider, but they also should soothe the worries of the risk management team. By keeping flight data in a centralized location, anyone can supervise how drones are being used and increase the overall transparency of operations. When executives, a corporate legal team or outside auditors request records of company drone operations, don’t be in the position of having to scrape together inconsistently recorded data from a variety of sources with differing levels of precision and detail. Companies need to maintain centralized, up-to-date data about the entire scope of the unmanned aviation program.

Richard Lopez, virtual design and construction manager at Hensel Phelps Construction Co, explained how centralized documentation helped him achieve buy-in for the drone program. “All of our information is on the web and contained in one database, so all of our district teams, our legal team and the safety team can access this information whenever they need to.”

4. Outlaw Rogue Drones

When some people see red tape, they want to cut it. Simply put, a company can’t afford to have rogue drones flying under their auspices of the company—an accident under these circumstances can violate the terms of an insurance policy and any serious trouble with regulators could threaten the existence of the entire drone operation.

To prevent this, start by building a strong culture of accountability by educating employees about all relevant regulations, particularly airspace restrictions. Always plan flights against a validated and updated airspace map—if there are restrictions, managers can apply for a waiver from the FAA.

Provide training that promotes a sense of responsibility and respect for the procedures laid out in the general operating manual and national airspace rules, such as Part 107 in the United States.

5. Plan to Upgrade—Safer Technology on the Horizon

Drones have come a long way in the past few years, and the technology and software is rapidly improving. Many drones now come with collision-detection sensors, which lower risk by reducing the amount of skill required to avoid a crash. Another new sensor detects and avoids nearby airplanes and helicopters.

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