By Amanda Hosey

We are all familiar with drones. The small ones are fun to fly around your house and spy on neighbors. The large ones are used in warfare, surveying enemy territory and taking out bad guys. But in there is a middle ground that holds a wealth of benefits for restoration companies that work on large sites, especially commercial buildings.

We aren’t talking about the little quadcopters you can buy for $100 at Best Buy, but rather commercial drones that are larger and smarter—and will cost a good bit more, obviously. The term “commercial” here comes from the FAA, who defines any drone that is used for financial benefit as a commercial drone. You’ll also see terms like unmanned aerial vehicle, which is the drone itself, and unmanned aerial system (UAS), which is a more all-inclusive term for everything involved in flying a drone, including the pilot and ground station.

These types of drones collect data in hard-to-reach places faster than a technician could, while keeping them safe. They can also carry sensors (like thermal imaging, 3D mapping, and measurement) that provide data needed for beginning, maintaining, and documenting a project.

While these devices aren’t for every restoration company, they do provide significant benefits to certain kinds of companies. And they are becoming increasingly popular in the industry.

Safe, fast data collection

One of the most obvious but important benefits of drone use on restoration jobsites is the added safety it provides to the technicians on the ground surveying damage. Protecting your workers is obviously key in any job, but especially in fields like restoration where dangerous situations are more prevalent.

Randy Rapp, associate professor of construction management at Purdue University, considers the extra protection for workers one of the biggest advantages of drones. “They can go places more quickly than people might using a ladder or something of that sort. To get to higher levels in, say a gymnasium or warehouse, with a drone, if you’re operating using the right sensor, you need not climb anything,” Rapp says. “It can be up there very quickly. It’ll have people seeing at higher levels and in places where an elevating device would not allow people to readily go right in.”

With this added safety also comes another major benefit: speed. By removing the physical requirements from surveying damage onsite, restorers are able to gather information more quickly so job planning can begin.

“Using drones can speed up processes while still getting accurate and precise data,” says DroneDeploy Founder Jono Millin. He reports his company, in partnership with Dronetec, mapped 300 buildings in 10 days after Hurricane Irma, which would have taken months without drone technology. Millin explains, “Drone mapping makes it easy to collaborate and also minimizes insurance risk. Each map is geotagged and has a clear record of the date, time, and location so that an insurer is confident that they are paying the right claim.”

Rapp adds the sensors on some drones speed data collection even more and often gather information of higher quality than might otherwise be achieved, which aids a restorer’s planning, allowing the entire job to begin more quickly and accurately.

Documentation and sensing

The added speed and accuracy of data collection offers an obvious benefit to restorers since restorer-insurance relations remain one of the most discussed issues in the industry. With requirements for documentation growing increasingly stringent, the restoration industry seems always to be searching for ways to ease the burdens.

“The key benefit here is the ability for fast, accurate documentation of damage, which then leads to quicker cycle times to have claims settled…With the right software, these systems/technologies could also provide roof measurements and other data analysis to assist in the review of data (i.e., automated damage detection using artificial intelligence),” Kevin Wunder, vice president of marketing and product for Loveland Innovations, says. “We are seeing more and more insurance carriers both using drones themselves and accepting drone data as part of the claims settlement process.”

According to Wunder, insurance carriers’ teams are using data from commercial drones to settle claims, while restoration contractors are submitting data captured with their drones to homeowners’ adjusters. He says, “In both scenarios, the inspectors are looking to drones to provide high-resolution data that can lead to accurate and fair claims settlements. And they’re looking for it to occur in a rapid and safe manner.”

Important to data collection in restoration scenarios is the sensors drones carry. There are a number of sensors being added to commercial drones to provide the data needed for advancing a restoration job, and there is really something for every situation.

Rapp says, “There are a lot of different sensors. What you add depends on what you’re looking for. It might be ultraviolet or infrared. You can have one for low-light situations. There’s LIDAR, laser, and even AM radio waves.”

Here are a few that are being used with success in the industry:

LIDAR

Light detection and ranging (LIDAR) provides a collection of impressive tools including 3D mapping and measurement. It does this by sending out light pulses and measuring using the time it takes for the light to return.

“It’s able to plot in great detail the surfaces of things inside a room, let’s say. And that is helpful in a number of ways,” says Rapp. “For example, once a week, at a given time, they might send out the drone, and it can see the amount of work that has been done in the past week. They can tell one week versus the next week and show the difference that’s been made.”

Infrared and thermal

The ability to fly drones carrying thermal imaging sensors into large-scale restoration sites and see areas with potential moisture is beneficial for obvious reasons. As Millin puts it, “This is one of the most expensive issues to detect and is a huge value driver for commercial building insurance.”

While these sensors are not widespread yet, they are becoming popular. However, it’s important to remember use of thermal imaging with drones still requires the same trainiknowhow needed with a hand-held device.

“Unless someone is leveraging a thermal camera, most drone inspections are done in the visual spectrum. Thermal inspections are growing but remain a smaller percentage of inspections performed with drones,” Wunder notes. “This is mostly due to the skill and expertise involved and the expense of an appropriate setup for aerial thermal inspections.”

Orthomosaic

These can be used to create maps of an area by sewing together many images. Orthomosaic maps are detailed with the ability to zoom and examine, things. They can be used interactively to leave notes on important points, noting updates on job progress.

Drawbacks of drone use

For the most part, adding a drone to your restoration toolbox has few drawbacks—since they’re relatively affordable, require little training, and offer a host of benefits—as long as you’re the right target market.

Not for everyone

Commercial drones, simply put, are not for every company or situation.

It is important to understand where and in what cases drones are best used. Instances where there needs to be a visual examination and documentation of damage done in a rapid way is a prime scenario for drone use.

For those considering buying a commercial drone, it’s important to consider the scale of company operations. How much would you use it? Are you doing the right types of jobs for it? Even if you might benefit from drone use, subcontracting drone inspections might be more cost effective.

Rapp explains, “If you’ve primarily got your restorers taking care of a home after toilets overflow, you hardly need a drone. However, if you’re going into a gymnasium or a warehouse, to be able to fly a drone around both outside and inside might be very helpful. You can put it over the building, and with a thermal-type detector, you can potentially see where there are differences in temperature, which might be indicative of water damage.”

Financial investment

While commercial drones are not outrageously expensive, especially compared to some of the equipment required in restoration work, they also are not especially cheap. On the low end, a commercial-quality drone with elements needed in restoration work could go as low as $1,000, and on the high end, prices reach up to $10,000 (or more, depending on additions). And different sensors can be added, increasing the cost.

“They’re not extremely cheap to get one that provides that kind of information that restores would expect and would make them worth having in the first place—we’d be looking at probably a few thousand dollars at least to have the kind of sensors needed, the capability, enough battery life to be able to fly for 20 minutes at least before bringing it back,” Rapp says.

Some commercial drones come prepackaged with thermal imaging or other sensors needed in this industry, while in other cases, buyers purchase these separately. According to Rapp, a six-bladed drone in his department (which came packaged with thermal imaging) that was purchased two years ago, cost upwards of $6,000.

Rapp adds, “That has come down a bit in price, but you’re going to spend near that kind of money to get a drone that you would find useful, maybe with an extra battery, sensors, etc.”

Training and certification

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires anyone flying a drone for commercial purposes to hold a Part 107 certification. It’s a fairly simple and inexpensive process ($5 registration fee, $150 testing fee), but it is yet another training and certification requirement for a company.

It basically certifies that a user understands the basics of airspace regulation and drone operations and is equipped and committed to safe operations. This is a knowledge-based test (not in-field testing) that can be taken at FAA-approved testing centers around the country.

There are a number of flight regulations that might conflict with restoration work—no night flight, no flight above 400 feet, no allowing the drone to leave direct sight, no indoor flight, etc. These rules, however, can be circumvented by applying for exemptions for your work.

For more on FAA certification requirements and flight regulations, see the sidebars in this story, and stay up to date on changing regulations by visiting faa.gov/uas.

Growth in restoration

Drones are everywhere in recreational, government, and commercial use. More and more companies in a multitude of industries are finding uses for drones that revolutionize work. And the time is now for restoration companies who perform large-scale jobs to add commercial drones to their arsenal.

“There are many industries and companies using drones in everyday operations, so one could argue it’s already becoming commonplace. We’re currently seeing prolific drone use by restoration NGOs,” Millin says. “We’re rapidly reaching the point in most of the world where you’re more likely to see a drone involved…than not.”

Much of the insurance industry has implemented drones into their inspection process with success. Wunder reports national and regional insurance carriers are using commercial drones, and his company alone has major insurance company names using its drones in inspections.

“I think [drones in restoration] is growing to become more commonplace today, but we’re not at a place where it is the norm. There is still a great amount of adoption required for it to become the norm, but within the next 2-3 years I believe you’ll see drones being used more often than not,” Wunder says.

FAA UAS CERTIFICATION PROCESS:

  • Anyone operating a drone (weighing less than 55 lbs.) for finan-cial gain must receive a remote pilot certificate under Part 107.
  • Each drone must be registered ($5) and available for FAA inspection.
  • Pilots must be over 16.
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved center ($150). (There are many training courses online to help with this.)
  • Pass a Transportation Security Administration background check.
  • Renew testing every two years.

FAA UAS OPERATING REQUIREMENTS:

  • Avoid manned aircrafts.
  • Keep drones within sight, or have a visual observer.
  • Only be responsible for one drone at a time.
  • Fly only in daylight and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Fly no more than 400 feet high and no more than 3 miles from the control station.
  • Do not fly over people, under a covered structure, or inside/from a vehicle.
  • You can request a waiver for most restrictions provided you can perform the operation safely.

As advancements are made to drones and sensors, we can expect to see them in the air on most larger restoration sites. A few specific improvements the experts see contributing to their popularity in restoration are:

Improved batteries

Battery life can be a problem on these medium-sized drones, and a 20-minute battery life is currently superior. As technology improves, extended battery life is expected. Rapp says, “Being able to raise a drone up and leave it up for a long time without bringing it back to have a battery recharged or exchanged is very important.”

Improved sensors

The sensors that exist relevant to the restoration industry are highly beneficial to the work, but they can be heavy and often expensive. With the advancement of technology, those burdens should lighten.

“This is one thing we’re generally expecting to improve: sensors becoming less costly. For example, the LIDAR sensors, which are particularly advantageous, can be fairly costly, and they’re also heavier,” Rapp explains. “As technologies get better, they’ll become less costly and won’t weigh as much. You won’t need as big a drone to lift one. It just opens up the possibility for less money, less hassle. You can get better information quicker, and that is something we all know is a big step in the right direction.”

Continuous advancements to night vision, LIDAR, and computer vision (which aids navigation in tight spaces), and thermal imaging, as well as other sensors, can all be expected.

Automation

As with most things in our world these days, drone technology is moving toward more automated functions. Wunder reports in the near future, “Using drones will be so simple that they will be in the hands of nearly anyone performing [inspections]. Robust automated capabilities exist today, and they are only getting better. As constituent technologies improve, like improved onboard sensors and more precise location tracking, you’ll see drone flight become more and more simple.”

Semi-autonomous flight-path planning currently exists in which a drone pilot can set the path using GPS and send it on flights without someone flying by remote. Rapp says a company might even employ several drones at once on preprogrammed paths to get information more quickly.

And autonomous flight isn’t too far in the future, especially as computer vision advances, giving a drone the ability to “see” obstructions and adjust its path. That automation will extend into other aspects of drones, too. “You’re going to begin seeing more data analysis happening at the edge, meaning that more decisions and data analysis (like automated damage detection and measuring with a drone) will begin happening in real-time.”

As more and more restoration companies use commercial drones in their work, we will be able to better see their value and other ways to use them on a jobsite. And as their use in the industry grows, we will, no doubt, begin to see more advancements in sensors that relate directly to restoration work, increasing their value even more.


Amanda Hosey is the managing editor of Cleanfax. She has worked as an editor and writer for more than six years, including four years with Cleanfax. Reach her at 
amandah@issa.com.