7 September 2018

Drones and construction: the future

Summary

  • Drones are a well-established, readily available and cost effective tool that could be invaluable for construction projects.
  • Drones are currently regulated in a manner that makes their use in certain situations challenging.
  • Regulation of drones is continuing to evolve as evidenced by the Government's consultation on drone use and plans for further drone legislation.

Introduction

Technology is gradually changing the way in which we procure developments; to the extent that in their report "Innovation 2050 – A digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry", published in June 2017, Balfour Beatty predicted that by 2050, construction sites will be human-free.

Drones are an example of a well-established technological innovation with obvious uses in the construction industry. They are readily available, relatively inexpensive and have the potential to improve efficiency for matters such as surveying or site inspection. Drones are already being put to such use on construction sites but perhaps not as widely as such a cheap, useful technology might be. At least in part, this may be to do with the emerging regime regulating their use.

Uses for drones in construction

Uses for drones in the construction industry are numerous and apparent wherever the ability to view a project from a high vantage point would be helpful. Drones could be an invaluable tool for surveying both existing buildings and development sites. They can be equipped with more sophisticated equipment for geo-location or infrared and coupled with software solutions to create 3D models of sites. Drones could do away with the need for viewing platforms for monitoring sites, be used for surveys, monitoring activity on site to prevent theft or record site activity to mitigate in the event of a dispute.

Existing regulatory framework

Currently, the use of drones is monitored by the Civil Aviation Authority and by statue including the Air Navigation Order 2016 (the "Order").

In May 2018, changes were made to the Order to impose additional restrictions on the use of small drones, which introduced (amongst others):

  • a height restriction of 400ft for all small drones;
  • a registration scheme for operators of small drones of a mass between 250g and 20kg; and
  • competence requirements for operators of small drones of a mass between 250g and 20kg.

The registration scheme and competency elements are not yet in force and it is not yet determined what exact requirements they will impose.

The Order also imposes further restriction for "commercial operations", which is highly likely to capture use of drones in construction projects. First, the Civil Aviation Authority must grant permission before a drone can be used commercially. Additionally, unless the Civil Aviation Authority provides further permission there are restrictions (amongst others) on operating drones used for surveillance:

  • within 150 metres of a congested area;
  • within 50 metres of any person; and
  • within 50 metres of a vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the operator of the drone.

For the purposes of the Order "surveillance" will capture any form of data acquisition, so is highly likely to affect drones equipped with cameras for site monitoring purposes.

Altogether then, there exists a regulatory framework under which the use of drones is policed; which is compounded when seeking to use drones in built up or heavily populated areas. In cities, buildings are increasingly likely to be over 400 feet in height, posing another hurdle for the use of drones in construction, which may go some way to explaining why drones have not been embraced more fully.

Practitioners hoping to use drones will soon have to contend with a regime for registering for use and proving competence. While this may impose an administrative burden, it may also provide a clear framework of requirements that companies must adhere to in order to use drones on their schemes.

Future legislation

A draft piece of legislation to further regulate the use of drones, named the "Drone (Regulation) Bill 2017" was presented to parliament in September 2017 and is expected to have its second reading in February 2019. The Bill has not yet been published but it is potentially going to mandate and/or regulate the use of a flight information and notification system and grant the police powers to give fixed penalty notices for drone misuse.

The flight information and notification system, as envisaged, could track use of drones and allow for real-time information sharing between different users sharing airspace as well as government authorities.

The Government has been carrying out a consultation, due to close on 17 September 2018, considering this and other matters relating to the use of drones and could become a part of the Bill.

Conclusion

Drones are already proving an invaluable tool in construction projects and could foreseeably become a familiar sight on building sites. The framework regulating the safe use of drones is continuing to evolve but, when it is settled, it may well be expected that drone use will become more accessible and easily deployed.

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