When drones fly
What do safety professionals need to know about this evolving technology?
Up in the sky or down in areas of dangerous access and egress, drones fly with increasing frequency.
Employers in all 50 states use drones for more than 40 business applications, according to research from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, VA. Aerial photography is most common on a list that also includes construction; infrastructure; emergency management; and mining, oil and gas. And some safety experts have taken stock.
“Anything that we can do to eliminate a hazard where an employee can be injured through the use of technology, that’s great for me,” said Clark Peterson, vice president of environmental, health and safety for Skanska USA’s civil construction operations.
New York-based Skanska first explored using drones – more formally known as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS – several years ago, starting slowly as the technology developed. Before long, the organization had pinpointed numerous practical and cost-effective uses that also promoted worker safety.
Instead of contracting a pilot to take flight for an aerial jobsite survey photo, Skanska deployed a drone operated by one of its own properly certified employees. Rather than sending a worker into a confined space or hard-to-reach area, the company used a drone “so you visually see something without physically putting someone in there,” Peterson said.
Worker attitudes toward drones have evolved alongside the technology. Javier Irizarry, Ph.D., a Georgia Tech associate professor and director of the School of Building Construction’s CONECTech Lab, recounts a handful of early instances in which workers suspected the machines of monitoring them – and little else.
“As long as we explain before we are using the drone what it is for and what it does for them in terms of ensuring their safety, then they understand,” Irizarry said. “Then that apprehension to us or the company’s use of the drone, then that dissipates, basically.”
FAA regulations direct use
Industry officials and technology experts stress that risks are still present – the mere existence of drones does not negate the human-error factor.
“It’s like anything in construction,” Irizarry said. “If you’re not trained or don’t have experience, you’re exposing yourself to a lot of common causes of the accidents that we’re familiar with.”
FAA regulates the commercial use of drones under 14 CFR Part 107, which went into effect in August 2016. In response to an email from Safety+Health, OSHA spokesperson Kimberly Darby wrote, “OSHA does not have a category or specific regulation that governs the use of drones.”
Part 107 has helped initiate more widespread drone use. According to FAA spokesperson Les Dorr, approximately 27,000 commercial drones were registered as of Sept. 8, 2016. By Feb. 7, that total had exceeded 51,000. Among the Provisions of Part 107:
- Operators must pass an aeronautical knowledge test, administered for a fee at an FAA-approved center, to obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.
- The UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds and remain in the line of sight of the operator or a visual observer.
- The UAS must be flown less than 400 feet above ground level; if that elevation is exceeded, the UAS must remain within 400 feet of a structure.
- Operators must fly at or below 100 mph while yielding the right of way to any nearby manned aircraft.
- Operators cannot fly drones over unprotected individuals on the ground who are not part of the operation, are under a covered structure or are inside a covered stationary vehicle.
Before the regulations were enacted, people seeking to fly a UAS for commercial use were required to obtain a manned pilot license and an exemption under the Section 333 provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
“UAS are increasingly user-friendly, allowing businesses to adopt the technology and integrate it into their existing operations,” AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne wrote in an email to S+H. “In fact, some of the most popular platforms for commercial operations are also used by hobbyists.”
Safety awareness program gains support
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, VA, in conjunction with the Academy of Model Aeronautics in Muncie, IN, and the Federal Aviation Administration, introduced the educational “Know Before You Fly” campaign in December 2014. The campaign aims to raise awareness about safe drone use among recreational and commercial pilots.
In an email to Safety+Health, AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne called the results “overwhelmingly positive,” citing the support of nearly 120 organizations and businesses from both manned and unmanned aviation circles. Those include unmanned aircraft system manufacturer DJI and retailers Amazon, Best Buy and Wal-Mart.
“For example,” Wynne wrote, “DJI distributes the campaign’s safety brochures inside the packaging of all its U.S.-bound Phantom 3 and Inspire 1 UAS products, while Wal-Mart promotes a link to ‘Know Before You Fly’ on its store shelves and on receipts for UAS purchases.”
For more information about the “Know Before You Fly” campaign, visit its website.
Not a toy
Irizarry vouches for the accessibility and maneuverability of many commercial drones, saying, “I would think somebody with not a lot of tech savviness would be able to pick it up relatively easily.”
He offers an important caveat nonetheless: “They’re very easy to operate, but still, if you don’t have some amount of practical experience before you use it on a jobsite, the chances of something bad happening increase. You have to plan to avoid or mitigate as much of the risk as possible in case a failure or something unforeseen happens. And the only way we feel folks can do that is through practical training.”
Unlike a driver’s test, for instance, the aeronautical knowledge test consists only of written questions. Passing a UAS flight review is not part of the protocol, although pilots must renew certification by passing the knowledge test every two years.
FAA requires remote pilots to register small drones before flying and perform pre-flight visual and operational checks. Drones must be made available to FAA for testing or inspection upon request, and if an incident resulting in serious injury, loss of consciousness or non-UAS property damage of at least $500 occurs, the pilot must report it to FAA within 10 days.
Pete Dwyer, partner and principal consultant at Hinsdale, IL-based Unmanned Systems and Solutions, a drone consulting and repair company that assists both commercial and government UAS operations, advocates employers to “culturally imbue” their UAS operators with the values of safety.
“You just don’t have that give and take, that live processing of your environment, your surroundings of what’s going on every second that you would in manned aviation,” Dwyer said. “As a result, it’s imperative that the supervisors, the manager of that organization, they focus that much more with their operators – that they understand the safety guidelines, the risks, that are associated with their operation.”
Part 107 requires pilots to possess an understanding of crew resource management. According to Dorr, that entails the ability to “maintain situational awareness, properly allocate tasks to individuals, avoid work overloads in themselves and in others, and effectively communicate with other members of the crew.”
“We’re not thinking that the foreman would be flying the drone around for their purposes,” Irizarry said. “We find that it’s more junior management, superintendents, field managers or safety engineers.”
‘An accelerated pace’
During the fall semester of 2016, Georgia Tech began offering a course called “Technology Applications in Construction” through its Master’s in Building Construction and Facility Management degree program. Drones factor prominently into Irizarry’s curriculum. So, too, do observations from a four-month, grant-based construction safety research study done in collaboration with Unilever USA in 2015.
In a video, Steve Schulstrom – then-Unilever’s safety health and environment coordinator – admitted initial skepticism toward jobsite drone usage. He soon became a supporter, though, lauding drones’ abilities to help workers view projects from never-before-seen angles while providing more efficient and safer alternatives to some tasks.
“That’s one thing that impressed me, was the stability of the drone,” Schulstrom says in the video. “It wasn’t as noisy as I was expecting. It was smaller than I was expecting.”
For Irizarry, such testimony from a member of a generation that wasn’t born with technology seemingly at its fingertips proved especially reassuring considering forecasts for the future.
“Drones usually get a bad rap from the other ways that we use them as a country, I guess,” Irizarry said. “It’s coming, and it’s coming at an accelerated pace. I’m sure it won’t be long before they’re even more widely used.”