Drones have taken off (excuse the pun) in a big way over the past couple of years. Once the preserve of the military, drones (or small unmanned aircraft [SUA]) are now used in a wide range of markets, from the aerial surveillance of crops and search and rescue operations to the inspection of wind turbines in remote locations. However, their use in social housing has been limited until now. In this article, we will explore some of their potential uses within housing, outline the some of the regulatory considerations, and consider what the future might hold.
Are you using drones for roof surveys?
If you’re not using drones for your roof surveys, whether for reactive/ad-hoc repairs, your planned maintenance, Decent Homes programmes or to assist with your EPC Clean Growth Strategy targets, then there are a whole range of benefits that you’re probably missing out on.
- Efficient use of time – A routine inspection be carried out by a drone in difficult to reach areas, and when a problem with a roof is apparent a drone can be used to quickly find the source of the issue. A drone survey doesn’t need time spent erecting ladders, scaffolding or viewing platforms and it doesn’t need any extra manpower so the process is completed faster than a traditional survey.
- Reduced disruption – A drone survey doesn’t require activities within the property to cease; work can carry on as normal, so that disruption to your tenants is minimised.
- Risk reduction – Roof inspections and surveys, while not inherently dangerous, do carry some degree of risk. Some older buildings have very inaccessible roof areas, or areas which are tricky to examine with the human eye and can pose serious health and safety concerns for those carrying out the work. Drones allow for surveys, even in the most inaccessible areas, with little or no risk to human life.
- Accurate results and records – The nature of drone surveys means that the entire operation can be recorded from start to finish via high-resolution photographs, 4K HD video and thermal imaging. You can easily see areas of concern, issues with the roof, and review any earlier work that was done. Additionally, a drone survey can provide very accurate, quick and yet very impressive additional outputs such as precise measurements (photogrammetry) relating to perimeters, surface areas, edge counts, pitches and slope angles.
What are the other uses of drones in housing?
- Medium & high-rise elevation inspections – Images could easily be automatically captured of the elevations of any tall buildings to provide similar benefits to when used for inspecting roofs.
- Development land inspections – Another way in which drones could be used is for land inspections. Any land that has been earmarked as a possible development site could be inspected from the air and by using ground control points (geo-referenced precise points on the surface of the earth); extremely accurate measurements can be obtained which could greatly help architects and developers.
- Solar-panel installations – Fitted with a thermal camera, a drone can easily help to identify manufacturing defects, cracks, faulty inter-connectors, defective bypass diodes, temporary shadowing and the build-up of dirt which will all result in a reduction in the electricity generated.
- Estate management and tenancy issues – Addressing issues with fly tipping, untidy gardens, graffiti, abandoned vehicles, dirty communal areas, anti-social behaviour and parking could all benefit from an aerial view.
- Void property marketing using 3D modelling – 3D visualisations of properties such as sheltered housing schemes can be created showing the property, its curtilage and surrounding areas. These can be easily embedded in your organisation’s website or choice-based lettings site.
Who can fly a drone commercially and are they doing so legally?
More popularly known as drones, SUAs are now widely available for commercial use, but just like many other devices, they can cause injury or damage if they aren’t used responsibly and so are subject to specific safety rules relating to the way they are operated, which are underpinned by UK law.
What is classed as flying commercially?
Any flight by an SUA which is in return for remuneration or other valuable consideration.
What qualification should the pilot have?
A pilot should have a Permission for Commercial Operation (PfCO). A PfCO is essentially a drone ‘licence’. Licence is in inverted commas because it’s not actually a licence, it’s a permission. UK permissions are granted through undertaking a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) drone training course from a CAA-approved trainer. The course will be followed by a practical and theory test.
To obtain a PfCO, the pilot must then provide evidence of completing the course and exams to the CAA along with a comprehensive operations manual, which is effectively a contract between the pilot and the CAA outlining how the pilot intends to conduct flights safely. The PfCO allows a drone operator to use an SUA. The SUA must weigh less than 20kg and can be used for commercial projects.
Does the pilot need insurance?
Yes, the pilot requires very specific insurance that complies with Regulation (EC) 785/2004, as required by the CAA.
Can a pilot with a PfCO fly anywhere?
Absolutely not. There are a number of rules and regulations; these are the key ones which often get ignored (especially by hobbyists). Drones should:
- Always be flown within visual line of sight;
- Always be flown lower than 400ft (121m) and within 1640ft (500m);
- Be flown within the manufacturer’s instructions; for example, if the maximum suggested wind speed is 10 m/s (22mph) then it should not be flown in winds exceeding that;
- Not be flown within 150ft (50m) of a person, vehicle, vessel or structure that’s not under the control of the pilot;
- Stay at least 150ft (50m) away from built-up and congested areas and never fly over them unless under the control of the pilot;
- Never take off or land within 100ft (30m) of a person.
At first glance, those rules and regulations look quite onerous but with the correct pre-deployment operational planning and risk assessment, most ‘missions’ can be undertaken safely and successfully.
The future of the drone economy
PwC estimates that by 2030 drones will have contributed to a £42 billion increase in the UK’s GDP and £16 billion of cost savings to the UK economy.
With ever increasing battery lives, advancements in sense-and-avoid technology and a legislative acceptance that regulation must adapt, there is no doubt that over the next few years the skies above us will become increasingly populated with these types of aircraft.
This is highlighted by the government backed ‘Flying High Challenge’, a collaborative engagement with five cities and regions across the UK trialling innovative ways to shape the future of drones and drone systems. Surveillance and security, chemical spraying, painting, search and rescue and deliveries are just some of the uses that are now being trialled.
Matthew Stinson is a director of Raven Drones (www.raven-drones.co.uk).