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Drones likely to fly high, add smart capabilities

Though it might take a while, Rochester’s builders and engineers are eager to begin using unmanned aircraft systems.

Drones are being viewed as the next vital tool in the construction industry, given their data-collection capabilities. From aerial overviews of projects, monitoring job sites and inspecting structures, these vehicles are expected to be transformative. While the use of drones comes with regulation and safety hurdles, that has not tempered enthusiasm here and nationwide.

Officials at Ravi Engineering & Land Surveying P.C. are cautiously excited.

“We’re kind of in the baby step process right now,” says Mike Bogardus, vice president and manager of Ravi Engineering’s survey department. “To actually advance it enough for us to use on a project is going to take a lot of time and testing and figuring out how accurate it is.”

LeCesse Construction Services LLC has just started exploring the use of drones, officials said. The firm chose not to comment on the subject due to the infancy of its program.

SkyOp, an unmanned aircraft systems training school in Canandaigua, has seen students from a number of different businesses, including the Pike Co. Inc. and Bergmann Associates, says Brian Pitre, founder and instructor.

“We’ve had people come from all different sorts of places,” he says.

SkyOp is listed in the ranks of the 15 best drone training colleges in America by successfulstudent.org, a website dedicated to helping students find the right college and degree program. The training school offers courses on-site as well as at Monroe Community College, Finger Lakes Community College and Mohawk Valley Community College in the schools’ workforce development programs.

Training covers some of the major industries interested in drones, particularly construction, engineering, land surveying, agriculture and public safety. The potential applications for this technology include areas like forestry, climate tracking, pollution monitoring, search and rescue operations, investigative reporting, environmental and wildlife research, marketing, data collection and delivery, to name a few.

“We are not allowed to use them commercially yet because of the FAA regulations, but one of the guys on our survey staff has a drone personally,” Bogardus says. “He bought it, and just goofing around with it outside, taking some pictures and flying it around, we realized that there is an application that might apply to the survey side of things.”

Traditionally surveyors send workers into the field to take measurements using tripod-mounted equipment like laser scanners and totaling stations. Unmanned aircraft systems enable surveyors to instead take pictures and create digital models.

“So, we could stand on the ground, but with the drone we can take different angles and get a more complete picture of what we’re trying to measure,” Bogardus says.

Introducing these aircraft into U.S. airspace has been challenging for everyone—from the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation community to the commercial industries waiting for their chance to use this new technology. Difficulties abound, not the least being that U.S. airspace is the most complex and congested in the world. The FAA Modernization Act, passed in 2012, set into motion the rulemaking process for unmanned aircraft systems.

“That’s when Congress said we need to integrate unmanned aircraft technology, because our country is really quickly falling behind many other countries that already regulate and allow this technology,” says Cameron Cloar, an associate at Nixon Peabody LLP. “They put in a really aggressive timeline with milestones in place. September 2015 was supposed to be the date the FAA had integrated this stuff, but there’s no possible way we’ll meet that deadline.”

A former commercial pilot, Cloar consults with clients across the country.

“I think right now the FAA is hoping that we might have some rules in place for small unmanned aircraft that weigh less than 55 pounds,” he says.

Cloar expects rules to be in place by the end of next year or early 2017. Regulations will make the process easier, given that companies will not need to get individual approvals for their operations.

Currently, getting FAA approval for commercial use involves an application process that can take several months. The real challenge, Cloar says, is that the FAA is overwhelmed with more than 1,000 requests and counting from people and companies who want a head start on this technology.

Despite the slow process, Rochester builders are still very interested in the use of unmanned aircraft systems.

“I know the contractors are,” Bogardus says. “We just recently got into this model-building stuff and we can’t keep up. A lot of these contractors are investing in this GPS technology and that’s great but they don’t have people that know how to build the virtual models that they need, so that’s where we come in.  Who better to build (models) than a surveyor?”

Using drones is quicker, cheaper and safer, Bogardus adds. But as with every new technology there are liabilities to take into account—like safety, for example.

“If there’s an accident or incident you need to make sure that you have insurance when you’re using these things because, just like a regular aircraft, flying objects come with some risk that someone will get hurt,” Cloar says. “That’s less of a concern here than it is with manned aircraft, but it’s still a concern.”

Most potential liability comes from an enforcement action perspective, particularly for those who start using it in their business without the FAA blessing.  Beyond the larger issue of enforcement, there are privacy concerns that come with unmanned aircraft. Cloar says state laws have been proposed and even passed in some states that restrict an individual or company’s use of this technology, specifically regarding data collection and aerial photography and videography.

Still, it appears to be a near certainty that drones will soon start dotting the Rochester skyline.

“This is the next transformative technology,” Pitre says. “What I mean by that is, just like technologies in the past: computers, they were created by the government, they were adopted in businesses and they were brought into our homes and have changed our lives. Same thing is true of the Internet; it was created by the government, it was used by the military, it came into our home, it changed our lives.

“The next transformative technology is personal robotics, of which this is the largest segment of it, flight robotics … and it’s already coming into our lives personally and it’s going to change our lives just as much as those other two technologies.”

Lisa Maria Rickman is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

7/31/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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