Over the past several years, drones have become an important tool for efficiently gathering data on construction sites. But they have also came with their own safety risks and challenges. In order to ensure safety on the job site, pilots need to be properly trained, and appropriate practices and procedures need to be in place. Yet, there isn’t an established industry standard, so many companies are having to figure this out on their own. If this hasn’t been challenging enough, navigating the regulatory landscape and obtaining the proper waivers to fly can be difficult and frustrating, especially if your construction site is within controlled airspace.  

Richard Lopez, VDC Manager for Hensel Phelps, has been at the forefront of navigating the complex FAA waiver process, and developing effective and safe policies and procedures for drone flights on construction sites. This made him the ideal person to connect with to discuss how the FAA waiver process is impacting the industry, how the construction industry as a whole will be approaching safety procedures and protocols in 2020, and much more. 

Danielle Gagne: When we spoke with you in July, Hensel Phelps had just received its waiver to fly over people. How have you seen this play out in real-life? How do you think it will evolve in 2020, and do you think these waiver processes will become easier?

Richard Lopez: I was actually looking back at the time I submitted our waiver. It was actually February 12th, 2019 and we were approved on June 3rd, 2019, which is a really quick turnaround process. During that time the only thing that they asked for was clarification on the company name. That’s a testament to our safety protocols, and I was really proud to see how quickly that came in.

At the same time, I’ve also been monitoring where other companies are in this process. I believe there are around 40 or so companies that have been approved who are utilizing the ParaZero platform parachute. I thought it would have been a lot more. I also found it really interesting that I didn’t see a lot of construction companies on that list of approvals. I’m still baffled on why construction companies haven’t taken this opportunity to submit waivers as well.

I’m hoping that in 2020, as a lot of these companies put together their budgets for next year, that they have provisions within their UAV budget to actually purchase the ParaZero system, or any ASTM standard system. We definitely want to keep a pulse on that in 2020. From what I am hearing from my counterparts at other construction companies, they are definitely going down that road, it’s just taking a bit of time. 

You have taken a particular interest in developing processes and procedures to ensure safety when flying drones on the job site and this has been a major component to your success. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and this poses a threat not only for those businesses who aren’t prioritizing safety but to the industry as a whole. How is the industry looking to address these issues in the future? What do you think needs to happen in order to establish industry-wide standards?

There are definitely companies out there that are promoting their own products with exams and standards for safe operations like CompTIA, AUVSI, and DJI. You see these companies pushing different safety protocols and methods, and even some of the smaller companies, like DroneView, are offering safety classes. This is definitely a good thing, but at the same time, it all comes down to the pilot themselves. If the pilot is unwilling to take it to the next level and take these classes or get a proper certification, that’s what hurts the industry itself.

On the other hand, some of these companies are charging a lot of money for these services. It’s a bit of a catch 22. We definitely need the protocols in place but then again, some pilots aren’t willing to take the classes, or are willing to take them, but it’s really expensive. It’s a hard one to answer, but it comes down to safety, that’s key.

If you look at aviation in general, there have been protocols in place for forever with manned aircraft. What we did at Hensel Phelps was take those protocols and our safety culture and meld the two together. By doing that it offered us opportunities to move our program to the next level. I am hoping in 2020 that we see more of these protocols in place, and that the pilots who are really engaged and wanting to take their program to the next level get this training as well. 

Do you think there will be increased pressure coming from owners to have a higher level of proper training and safety protocols in 2020?  

We now have owners that are putting requirements to fly a drone on their job site in their RFPs. They must be hiring consultants or are becoming savvy themselves because they are asking for certain requirements to fly their job sites like part 107, flight and maintenance logs, and so on. So, we are seeing this from an owner standpoint. They are understanding the value of flying a drone on their job site, while at the same time understanding that there is a safety risk, and they could potentially be held liable if something went wrong on their site.

It is definitely good to see that the awareness is actually coming from the owners themselves at particular job sites. I’m not saying that all of them have this, but we’re starting to see a lot of them do this. I see that trend moving forward as this industry grows.

What emerging technologies do you think is going to provide the most value for the construction industry in 2020?  

Although it’s been around for a bit, what we’re really gearing up toward is thermography. A lot of our building owners are asking for that service. There is definite value in being able to see where there are thermal leaks. It enables us to ensure that the building is sewed up properly when it comes to the roof, or the exterior glazing is filled up properly. So, we will definitely see a lot of traction with that moving forward. 

I think another important thing that we’re really pushing for is artificial intelligence and machine learning. I think that is the next wave of technology moving forward within the construction industry. Right now, we have this tool that is capturing a lot of data from video to still images, and every construction company is going to utilize this tool—it is low hanging fruit. But to really push this technology to the next level we are going to have to exploit the data by doing things like capturing the data using machine learning and AI.

The stage that we are at right now is that we’re teaching the machine. We’re not 100% utilizing the AI data yet, but we’re teaching the machines to pick up different algorithms and routines from our site so that we can formulate different types of graphs to capture data for future outcomes for our projects. It’s really exciting just teaming up with the different companies that are pushing the machine learning and AI technology.

That’s what we’re seeing and gearing up toward and promoting internally. As an industry, this is going to be the next big wave of utilizing data.

What are some of the biggest challenges the UAV construction industry is going to have to tackle in 2020?

In 2020, the biggest challenge is still going to be making sure that you’re able to conduct a safe operation. It’s always going to be a challenge no matter what year we’re in. The other challenges will be making sure that you have all the proper waivers in place to conduct your operations whether that is nighttime operations, flying within controlled airspace or over people.

It’s interesting, we have a lot of projects located on airports and even though we have cranes erected within their controlled airspace that reach over 200 feet, we still have a difficult time getting permission to fly within that airspace. We still have to ensure we go through all the proper protocols. Getting these protocols in place is going to be the biggest challenge for any construction company moving forward.

Because your company, and many other companies in the construction business, has chosen to use DJI drones for many of their operations, what are your thoughts about recent restrictions on Chinese-made drones, do you think that is going to impact the industry in 2020? If so, how?

The biggest thing about why we chose DJI is that their product works. We definitely looked at other products, but we always came back to DJI. This is because it is a good price point, it’s capturing the data we need, it’s small and light enough to pack around larger job sites, and it’s a safe unit especially with its obstacle avoidance system. A lot of the other drones out there didn’t have all the added features that we were looking for, they came in at an extremely high price point, or they didn’t work with our kind of workflow.

Safety is especially important to us as an industry. If for whatever reason we lost a link with a drone in flight and it started to fly toward a building, crane, or other piece of equipment, we need that obstacle avoidance to stop the drone and prevent that unit from running into anything.

The majority of restrictions that have been put into place have been restricting the US military from purchasing those units. Because we are still able to purchase them and have been aware of everything coming down the pipeline, we’ve had protocols in place with our pilots to make sure we aren’t streaming any data back and forth, and that the internet is turned off on our devices. In addition, we heavily vetted DJI’s platform, and after understanding what their technology was doing, we determined there really was no issue there for us.

If a ban does go into effect, we would have to look for a different unit within our company, and at the current time there are no units that actually work for what we need. What concerns me the most about that is that we would have to pretty much get rid of the investment that we already have in these units and look for something else that may not be as good as the DJI units.

Another concern is that DJI has really led the way with their open API, which allows other companies to provide different types of tools. For instance, our DJI platform works seamlessly with Propeller. We use Propeller for all our data processing and AeroPoints, so there is value for us to capture that data utilizing both the DJI platform and Propeller. If they do happen to ban that particular unit, we may not have a unit that will have that kind of seamless performance.

If we really look into this more, what is going to hurt us further is that the part 7.39 waiver that enabled us to fly over people will essentially get thrown away because ParaZero works with the DJI drone. I haven’t seen any other drone companies out there teaming up with parachute companies. So, this will definitely have an impact on us from that standpoint as well.

But this is not only going to hurt us, it is going to hurt the third-party application providers, perhaps even more than it will hurt us. Our primary focus is to build buildings, and we will build it with or without a drone. But these other companies are dependent on these units. They are going to suffer because their whole infrastructure and business model is based off of creating third party applications for these particular units. For us, we use it as a tool, it is a very valuable tool and it works really well, but we will adapt.

What is some advice you might offer the construction industry for 2020?

I think the biggest thing is to encourage construction companies to really push the envelope in 2020 and get more involved within the different organizations, such as Commercial UAV Expo Americas and the other events out there. When people go to these events, they really understand what the industry as a whole is doing. I think that is really key to help educate people within the construction industry.

A lot of people go to the industry trade shows. This is not to say these shows are bad, but a lot these events are covering the “wow factor” of the units themselves. I am really not seeing coverage on a lot of the really big topics at those events, such as what the FAA is doing, or what the safety protocols at a construction job site are. I think it is important to attend events like Commercial UAV Expo, which covers topics like these.