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One of the biggest changes in recent years relating to commercial drone regulations has been FAA rule Part 107. Prior to 107, drone pilots were required to hold a current, manned aircraft pilot certificate, and had to pass a written, practical and oral exam to earn that credential. After 107 came into effect, a drone pilot was only required to pass a written exam to earn this commercial drone license. 

The majority of people working at construction companies who take the Part 107 exam don’t have any type of aviation background, so it’s recommended that they give themselves at least two hours of study a day over two weeks to prepare for the exam. This commitment allows enough time for the student to both master any prepared test materials as well as do any additional research when necessary. The Part 107 certification is good for 24 months. While the FAA hasn’t posted anything about a recertification process yet, it will need to do so soon because everyone who took the exam when it was available in September 2016 will need to be recertified by August 2018. 

The FAA has also made it easier to file for airspace authorization waivers on its website, which is very helpful for construction companies who may need to work close to an airport. 

Limiting risk at an individual site is critical when operating a drone commercially, and performing a risk assessment is an important part of that. While it is impossible to totally eliminate risk, a good operator can minimize it by having documents like a General Operations Manual (GOM) in place. This doesn’t need to be approved by the FAA, but larger construction and some contracting companies will require that this type of risk mitigation is in place. A well written GOM can include things like a flight preparation checklist, a general site risk assessment and emergency operations protocols. 

FAA rules are changing rapidly, so it is important to follow them closely, especially when a contractor is already using drones. It is likely that the FAA will soon adopt a policy that will no longer require commercial operators to maintain a line of sight to their drones and allow them to fly over people who aren’t inside a structure. Currently, a company needs a special waiver to do either of these things, and those waivers are rarely given. Companies are able to occasionally side-step these rules by flying adjacent to people, rather than overhead, or by using tethered or extremely light drones. CNN, for example, uses a special drone that weighs only a few ounces to minimize risk in the event of a malfunction.

Changing the rule for line of sight would have a huge impact on the construction market, especially with respect to surveying on long highway and pipeline projects. It is important to note, however, that in order for the line of sight rule to be implemented, drones will need certain kinds of FAA certified transponders that prevent them from running into other aircraft. While transponders would be likely to increase initial drone hardware costs, this would minimize staff involvement and decrease the ongoing operational cost of drone usage.

The FAA is exploring parachutes on drones to decrease the risk of flying over people and out of line of sight. Automatic parachute deployment could happen in milliseconds and occurs if certain errors are detected, such as a single motor failure on a four motor quadcopter drone.

No one is questioning whether new drone regulations are going to transform the capabilities and impact of drone mapping. The only unknown is the exact date and language. Transportation companies are already testing unmanned commercial aircraft. The military already uses fully autonomous aircraft. For example, a single-engine Cessna with landing gear can land itself on an airstrip in a battle site. It gives people on the ground a predetermined amount of time to unload cargo before its closes its door and flies away. Drones of the future will go beyond mapping and inspection and actually be able to treat issues after diagnosing them. Expect drones with robotic arms that while examining facilities, such as communications towers, would detect a broken signaling lights and replace them. 

Because there’s no business value in new technology that can’t be used legally, it’s important that regulations continue to keep pace with the latest advances. As modern drones are becoming capable of more with every passing year, U.S. regulations are closely following pace. The need to minimize risk is being carefully balanced with the efficiency gains of new technology, opening up a virtuous cycle of progress and innovation.


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