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Automation with Drones


The following is a collaborative effort by Ron Leach and Ray Adams. Ray has over 30 years of aviation experience in air traffic management in the New York City metropolitan area in both the terminal and en-route environments. Working in some of the busiest, complex facilities in the world, he has a large base of knowledge and experience in air transport operations. Ray and Ron are part of the Urban Low Altitude Transport Association (ULTRA) leadership, an industry advocate.


ULTRA is a 501c6 non-profit corporation that supports the use of UAS technologies in industry and government. The organization is headquartered in Bergen County, New Jersey. Website: www.urbanlowaltitudetransport.org


The proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones has created the opportunity for a variety of industries to complement workers’ tasks, find economic efficiencies, and reduce risk. The technology has been employed in limited uses for over a decade but is now moving to wider use across government and business entities encompassing a greater range of use cases.


Congress realized the economic potential of small UAS and mandated the FAA to integrate these new “aircraft” into the National Airspace System by September 2015. The legislative vehicle which pressed for the inclusion of drones in the National Airspace System was the FAA Modernization and Reauthorization Act of 2012 (FMRA). With this specific language, the FAA would classify small UAS as aircraft for the first time and outline the size, scope, and areas where these new aircraft systems could be used.


Public safety and first responder entities also recognized early the value of these systems and quickly began to integrate drones in their first response to incidents. Public safety entities are currently leading the way by employing aerial assets that were once left to departments and agencies with large budgets capable of supporting manned aircraft. Helicopters and airplanes are exceptionally expensive assets to utilize. The cost of pilot training, maintenance, insurance, hangar leases, registrations, and other variables currently bar even the most forward-thinking agency from putting a full-sized aerial asset in the air. The advent of small UAS has changed that and we’re now seeing the rapid expansion in the public safety sector looking to take advantage of this technology. This same reasoning applies to businesses and other government entities such as smaller municipalities.


In commercial industries, drones are making significant inroads. Realtors use drones to take photographs that showcase properties. Agricultural crop spraying and inspection are saving farmers time and money by covering more acres in the air versus walking or driving the fields. Areas that could benefit from aerial application of sprays that were previously cost-prohibitive to farmers now get the benefit at a fraction of the cost and with more precise applications using drone technology. This saves time and money.


This is a picture of a New Jersey Department of Transportation using a "Snooper" truck to conduct an inspection of the State Highway 52 causeway bridge. Snooper trucks are used to inspect the underside of bridges and other inaccessible areas and structures. Workers have to physically climb inside of the specialized bucket and manipulate the arm to put them into different positions to observe structures for defects. Bridge and infrastructure inspections are seeing positive impacts using drone technology and reducing dangerous activity that often accompany these tasks.


The State of North Carolina is currently in the process of implementing drones into the toolbox for bridge and infrastructure inspections.[1] The benefits of using automation are the ability to reduce worker exposure, and using imaging technology mounted on the drones to look for deterioration not visible to the naked eye, all while accomplishing tasks at a faster rate.


In fact, drones can be used to monitor, inspect, and sample areas that are not easily accessible to people or other vehicles, and they can do it with pinpoint precision and with exceptionally high-resolution imaging technology. One example is the inspection and monitoring of watersheds. It’s now even possible to collect water samples directly with a drone.


The applications of drone technology are limited only by the mind of the user but certainly not without limitations. Before getting into the actual use cases for a particular industry, it is important to understand what the user role will be while operating drone aircraft. Yes, aircraft.


Drones that fall between .55lbs and 55lbs have been declared aircraft and are subject to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversite. This was the result of a long-running legal case Huerta v Pirker[2] where the FAA won a court decision held by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that determined drones are in fact aircraft since they fall under “any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air.” There are some licensing and insurance requirements for using drones, but while they can be complex, they are not onerous.


While the barriers to entry may appear high, having the right guidance will make the process easy to understand. The FAA requires a Remote Pilot Certificate to operate drones for any type of compensation or hire. That means if there is any good or service performed using the drone, the pilot must hold a valid certificate. Obtaining a Remote Pilot certificate is relatively simple. A course of study that covers operating rules and regulations, understanding airspace, assessing weather, and other areas will be required to be demonstrated by taking the initial Remote Pilot exam and achieving a passing score.

Upon successful testing, the remote pilot will receive a temporary paper certificate, the operator may now legally operate a drone for compensation or hire. It is important to realize the responsibility that comes with this certification. You are now considered a pilot in the eyes of the regulatory body that issued the certificate, the FAA. You will be expected to conduct all operations related to any flight in a professional, competent manner following all applicable rules and understanding some that may also apply to full-sized aircraft. If you violate the rules, there is no feigning ignorance.


The first step would be to decide what missions and roles you would like to conduct using drone technology and how they would improve your business. There are many types of aircraft available and deciding what airframe and sensors best fit your goal should be decided before making any purchase. Again, this is where having competent guidance from an industry professional will help.


As with any industry, there are sellers who are looking to make a sale and will load you up with as much as they think you can afford. You may not need a “high speed” thermal imager, or camera that can take pictures from three miles away with the clarity of a telescope. These are some potentially expensive decisions. Also, before the first flight with any aircraft falling between .55lbs and 55lbs, it will have to be registered with the FAA using the online portal FAADroneZone you should seek guidance here since there are many other websites that look official but are redirected to for-profit companies to process a registration that you can do yourself. Again, you should seek guidance here since there are many other websites that look official but are redirected to for-profit companies to process a registration that you can do yourself.


Drone usage is rapidly expanding, and this new market will create new jobs and make workers safer and more productive. The limits are only what you can imagine. One thing is for sure, this technology will rapidly pay for itself and streamline productivity, compounding the benefits over time.


Our experts can help your company in exploring the benefits of integrating drone operations into your businesses. Contact us at ron@leachsp.com for more information.


[1] NCDOT Conducts First Bridge Inspection Using Drone [2] Huerta v. Pirker: NTSB Rules that UAS Are “Aircraft” and Subject to FAA Prohibition on Careless and Reckless Operations | Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP - JDSupra


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