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In construction, drone use is taking off

A DJI Phantom lifts off the ground at the beginning of a mapping session, as Skyris Imaging founder and owner Joe Vaughn stands at the controls. (Josh Kulla/DJC)

A DJI Phantom lifts off the ground at the beginning of a mapping session, as Skyris Imaging founder and owner Joe Vaughn stands at the controls. (Josh Kulla/BridgeTower Media Newswires)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Implementation of new Federal Aviation Administration regulations in 2016 really opened the doors for contractors to start employing drones on construction projects.

To be sure, before the Small UAS Rule took effect many people were using unmanned aerial systems, or drones, in construction. But the new regulations governing commercial use of UAS not only increased usage, but also led to proliferation of new businesses dedicated to aerial photography and video.

“Before that you had to have a private pilot’s license to fly a drone for commercial purposes and a Section 333 exemption from the FAA,” said Michael Carlini, a commercial pilot and flight instructor who also runs Eugene-based Southern Oregon Drone. “It took a lot of time, so what they found out what was happening was they were flooded with requests and you basically had to have a lawyer do it. In response to that they figured out they needed for it to be more streamlined and accessible.”

Joe Vaughn, founder and owner of Skyris Imaging, prepares a DJI Phantom drone for a pre-programmed mapping flight covering a West Linn polo facility. (Josh Kulla/DJC)

Joe Vaughn, founder and owner of Skyris Imaging, prepares a DJI Phantom drone for a pre-programmed mapping flight covering a West Linn polo facility. (Josh Kulla/ BridgeTower Media Newswires)

According to the FAA, introduction of the Small UAS Rule made business easier for commercial drone operators. Along with a new framework outlining how, where and when commercial operators can legally operate, the rules rolled out a new online system called Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability. It allows for nearly instant online approval for flight requests inside FAA-controlled airspace.

“This dramatically decreases the wait experienced using the previous authorization process and allows operators to quickly plan their flights,” the FAA stated. “Air traffic controllers also can see where planned drone operations will take place.”

Elijah Polsky is a co-owner of Rogue Survey & Photography in southern Oregon. The FAA regulations adopted in 2016 helped the business get off the ground, he said.

“It was absolutely huge,” he said. “It made it so people like me could get the Part 107 (commercial licensing), but on the other hand it came with a lot more strict rules.”

Joe Vaughn, founder and owner of Skyris Imaging of Portland, agreed and said the recent increase in the number of companies entering the drone field is already forcing inefficient operations to close down.

“What I’m finding is there are a lot fewer drone companies lasting these days, and that’s because their prices aren’t correct,” he said. “If they charge too little they won’t be in business too long. We’ve been in business now for six years, back before any of this.”

In 2012, Skyris built its own drones capable of carrying out the work they needed done. It ranges from simple snapshots showing construction progress to complex, three-dimensional models based upon hundreds or even thousands of separate images.

But business potential hasn’t stopped a number of parties from entering the field, Vaughn said.

“Now they buy (drones) and they get dusty and they aren’t used,” he said. “So I figure there’s about two more years of this kind of fad.”

When it comes to construction, unmanned aerial systems are used in every phase of the development process. It starts with the initial real estate listing and topographic surveying and moves to 3-D building modeling and progression photos and videos for investors. It’s also customary to produce a short video of the completed project for marketing and other uses.

“It is growing rapidly, exponentially, which is amazing,” Polsky said. “I’d say about 75 percent of what we do is construction-based.”

That growth also involves the local tech industry, with Portland startup Skyward recently finding success through the development of UAS operating systems that link with the LAANC system. Using Skyward software, drone operators can gain real time authorization for flights in controlled airspace throughout the National Airspace System.

Skyward was purchased last year by Verizon, but is still headquartered in Portland.

Those in the field who are using drones are plenty enthusiastic about their use and future potential.

“It’s been a big help,” said Martin Segura, an architect with Carleton Hart Architecture.

Carleton Hart requires the general contractors it works with to provide a continuous stream of photos from their respective job sites. Then drone imagery is fed into BIM or CAD software.

“It’s like the first line of defense,” Segura said. “The drone image might clue us in to something, and when we get down into the fine detail we might pick up something we missed before. Or, it can lead to the use of further technology.”

Many Skyris clients, however, come from the development and investment side.

“My background is commercial real estate and asset management,” said Vaughn. “So I can talk to them in a language they understand and help them determine at what level we’re going to bump up the per-square-foot price in our pro forma, etcetera. We help our clients get their decision makers to a ‘yes.’”

Vaughn and his firm, which has 16 unmanned aircraft of various sizes, also provides sophisticated 3-D modeling imagery they produce themselves.

“We’ll also do inspections, building envelope inspections, and we can get very high resolution cameras both on the thermal spectrum and the visible spectrum to take a look for leaks or potential water intrusion,” he said.

Rogue Survey & Photography does many of the same things, with a heavier focus on construction and surveying.

“We can do it from start to finish,” Polsky said. “During development, we’ll do a topo(graphic) survey, and then they get to building it and we can start taking photos and show progression so the investors and planners can see the information. And at the end we can do a marketing project.”

The latter is now commonplace, said Meaghan Morawski, a marketing specialist with Bremik Construction.

“We do use drone photography, but it’s mostly for progress shots,” she said. “It’s great for marketing and I think there are lot of uses for it. I think that everyone loves to see the progress that goes into the projects we do.”

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