Can a drone improve an engineering firms bottom line?

    Drones are a powerful new tool that, used correctly, can help improve an engineering firm’s bottom line while improving work product quality.

    The drone phenomenon continues to pick up steam in the United States and around the world. Drones surfed into prominence on the technology wave created by the smart phone industry. Drones are essentially flying smart phones (battery, accelerometer, camera, etc.) with motors and propellers attached at each corner. Like smartphones, most drones are easy to operate, fun to fly, and surprisingly versatile.

    As more manufacturers enter the drone arena, the cost of high-quality drones continues to drop. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that the number of drones sold annually will expand from 2.5 million units in 2016 to approximately 7 million units in 2020.

    Drones are being deployed across the globe for just about every purpose imaginable. Whether monitoring for poachers in South Africa, delivering donuts from 7-Eleven, or playing Pokémon Go, the utility of drones (or at least creativity of humankind) seems to have no end. With new commercial drone regulations going into effect, every company — including civil and structural engineering firms — should be asking whether drones can be leveraged to improve their bottom line.

    Recently I spoke with Mark Woodson, P.E., L.S., D.WRE, F.ASCE, 2016 president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, about drones and how they might impact engineers’ work. Woodson agreed that “[t]he drone is a tool of our future.” The question, he said, was how this tool would be incorporated into the engineering profession? Woodson warned that engineers should start by educating themselves on the FAA regulations that govern drones.

    Currently, all drone flights fall into one of five legal categories:

    1. Indoor flights — Not regulated by the FAA in any manner.
    2. Recreation/hobby flights — Must operate drone within line-of-sight, must operate drone in accordance with accepted safety practices, and must notify any airport within five miles of drone operation.
    3. Section 333 Exemption — Allows commercial drone flights, but operator must have a conventional pilot license. Flight restrictions can vary from applicant to applicant depending on intended use.
    4. Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) — Allows drone flights by public entities, including law enforcement agencies and public works departments. Flight restrictions vary based on intended use, but the public entity is generally permitted to self-certify its pilots.
    5. Traditional aircraft — Drone and pilot must meet all the requirements of traditional manned aircraft and must follow all the rules for traditional aircraft flight.

    Drones operated under categories two, three, or four above, and weighing more than 0.55 pounds, must also be registered online with the FAA, a process that takes about 5 minutes and costs $5.

    Under current law, the only practical means for a private engineering firm to use a drone in support of the firm’s work (unless that work is inside a building) is to obtain a section 333 exemption. However, even with the exemption in hand, the firm would still need to employ someone with a traditional pilot’s license to operate the drone.

    In June, the FAA announced new drone regulations (14 CFR 107) that became effective on Aug. 29, 2016. Under the new regulations, anyone can take an FAA-administered drone test (dubbed the Aeronautical Knowledge Test) and, with a passing score, obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate. With certificate in hand, newly minted drone pilots can operate drones for commercial purposes within the constraints of the new law. Some of those constraints include:

    • maximum weight of 55 pounds (25 kg);
    • operation must be within line-of-sight;
    • maximum drone speed of 100 mph;
    • maximum altitude of 400 feet above ground level;
    • simple preflight inspection required; and
    • limited to Class G airspace without additional permissions.

    The new regulations throw the door wide open for engineering firms to incorporate drones into their project delivery. Civil and structural engineering firms are best poised to take advantage of the new technology.

    A $500 drone can be used to document conditions on construction sites or to inspect hard-to-reach structural elements on a bridge or tall building. Woodson agreed that “when you want to do inspections and look at infrastructure from a visual perspective, drones are a great tool.” Firms can also capture stunning aerial photographs of a proposed project site to give the firm a leg up in the proposal process.

    Companies such as Trimble, DroneDeploy, and Esri are leveraging high-definition cameras on drones to conduct mapping and surveys with photogrammetry. A firm can use drone technology to calculate stockpile volumes with surprising accuracy and in less time than with a traditional survey.

    Using drones for surveys has its pros and cons and will probably depend more on a firm’s specific specialties. “You can get some pretty good precision, but you have to know what you’re doing,” Woodson said. “[T]he challenge is, like everything today, what defines a survey and what isn’t a survey and what is the quality that you need to do design?”

    Despite some lingering questions, drones are a powerful new tool for engineering firms. Used correctly, a drone can help improve your firm’s bottom line while improving the quality of your work product. Maybe it is time to deploy a drone for your firm.

    Matthew Brown, J.D., EIT, is a licensed attorney in Florida and Alabama and the owner of