Drone aerial photography for construction is rapidly evolving in both the technology available as well in the rules governing their use. Find out about the regulations, safety, quality issues, costs, and a measured way to consider what’s best in aerial photography for you.

By Sherry and Brett Eklund

It’s no secret that aerial photographs play an essential role in any construction project. They help with the planning process, assist builders in documenting the progress of a project, provide an opportunity to spot potential issues that would otherwise be missed, capture great marketing images, and more.

It used to be the only way to get sky-view pictures for construction purposes was to hire an aerial photography team with a  piloted aircraft.  However, a new player has entered the scene – the drone. And whether you choose to hire a professional aerial photography team using a fixed-wing airplane, helicopter, or drone, or choose to go the DIY route, all have a place in the world of construction. But, using drones is complicated and ever evolving, so we’d like to touch on a few key points to help you understand drone aerial photography.

Hobby or Business?

To understand the regulations around the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), a.k.a. drones, on a job site, it is important to distinguish the difference between the hobbyist and the commercial operator. The FAA states that “recreational or hobby use is typically understood as the model aircraft being flown for personal interest and enjoyment and not for business purposes or compensation or hire.”

The current FAA position is that you cannot fly drones for commercial purposes without its permission. Commercial purposes are defined as anything that benefits your business or could potentially benefit your business, whether or not you’re receiving income from it. 

The Rules

So, when a construction company purchases a drone and has one of their employees use the drone to take aerial photos of the construction progress, that is considered commercial use, and the company is required to follow the appropriate FAA guidelines. Here are just a few of the requirements for commercial operators:

  • A grant of exemption issued by the FAA in accordance with Section 333
  • Those operating drones for commercial purposes need to have a recreational or sport class pilot’s license
  • No flying within 5 miles of an airport without contacting the control tower before the flight
  • Aircraft weighing more than .55 lbs. must be registered with the FAA
  • UAS must be kept within visual line of sight of the operator, and not go above 400′

Dangers Exist

Insurance is another major factor to consider as you can’t get liability insurance coverage until commercial registration and compliance is met. And hiring a drone aerial photography company does not ensure FAA compliance, so ask questions!

Beyond regulations, there are matters of personal responsibility and safety. While drones are generally safe and even fun, inexperienced drone pilots have caused some serious accidents. Operating a drone without proper practice could put yourself, your team members, or even innocent bystanders in danger if you lose control. If you do decide to operate a drone, exercise extreme caution and responsibility.

Hidden Costs

As mentioned earlier, drone operators have to stay within the line of site of their drone, meaning that you have to transport them on the ground between sites. On the other hand, airplanes and helicopters can travel as the crow flies between sites, and don’t need to get broken down and set up between flights. For a single site this probably isn’t a big deal. But if you have multiple sites, a traditional pilot and aerial photographer can accomplish in a few hours what might take a drone operator a few days or even weeks. The time savings is frequently reflected in the price of the service. There is a misconception that traditional aerial photography (airplane/helicopter) is considerably more expensive than drones; however, that is not always the case

Consider Value

If photography is something that interests you, you’re a fast learner, your project is relatively small, and you or your company are able to absorb the upfront costs, a drone might be the right decision.  Just don’t underestimate the value of an experienced, skilled professional or assume the DIY approach will yield the same results without putting in a lot of hard work and training. A drone is not a toy and commands the same skill and respect as other aerial equipment.

Consider Quality

Images from low cost drones have the “fisheye” effect and may provide distorted imagery for construction progress documentation. Therefore, high end equipment is definitely necessary, but the real value comes from a professional’s experience, skills, and passion. Aerial photography, like all photography, has nuances that are only learned through practice. A professional team knows how to get the good shots and how to work efficiently. They don’t waste time or resources snapping images that will ultimately end up being unusable. Construction photography requires a high level of attention to detail along with high-tech equipment (and knowledge of how to properly use it).

Final Thoughts

There will always be tech advances and as the technology gets more sophisticated and the rules and regulations trickier to navigate, a new crop of professionals that specialize in the field will come onto the scene. We believe there is room for all on the playing field. Just remember to fully consider your options and your goals before assuming drone aerial photography is for you. By doing so, you’ll make the right decision for you and your team on every project.

To learn more about commercial and recreational drone guidelines, or register your drone, you may visit the website for the Know Before You Fly Campaign at knowbeforeyoufly.org.

About the Authors

Sherry and Brett Eklund are Phoenix Aerial Photographers who provided valuable information for this article.  They are husband and wife, and cofounded Desert View Aerial Photography. Sherry is the photographer, and Brett the pilot. They’ve been in construction for over 30 years and providing aerial photo construction documentation since 2006.

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