By the Unmanned Safety Institute
Drones. You’ve definitely heard of them, most likely seen them and probably have an opinion on them. From aerial snapshots of for-sale homes to tracking the population of orangutans in Sumatra, drones perform dull, dirty and dangerous jobs when humans need a little help.
Topping the list of markets seeing the advantage of this inexpensive and efficient technology is the solar industry. Whether it’s installing panels on a private home or inspecting a 5-MW utility project, drones can reduce the time from days to hours of ensuring panels are operating optimally.
Although businesses and individuals are quickly recognizing the appeal of unmanned aerial systems (more commonly referred to as drones), the question is if they’re being flown safely and professionally. Given the number of complaints that local law enforcement and state offices are getting, the answer is decidedly no.
Flying a drone may be easy, but adhering to the laws and regulations that come with the responsibility seems to be far more challenging. Any damage caused by a pilot’s wayward drone could result in legal action and financial liability, both of which could be significant depending on the situation.
Here are some things solar technicians should consider before putting a drone in the air in residential neighborhoods.
What are the rules for flying in neighborhoods?
Drones shouldn’t ever fly over people not part of an unmanned operation, and, if it can be avoided, they shouldn’t be flown over private property either. The best way to avoid stirring the proverbial pot is to simply speak to anyone who may be affected by the drone operation or captured in the footage before operations commence.
If there happens to be an emergency in the area, drone operations should cease immediately. There has been a significant increase in first responders and emergency response teams unable to properly do their jobs because curious bystanders are using drones to conduct their own investigations.
If a drone is operating within five miles of an airport that has an air traffic control (ATC) tower, pilots must communicate their flight plans with ATC. This is an approval that must be acquired regardless of if a drone is flying in a neighborhood. Aircraft begin their landing pattern up to four miles from an airport, so this is a crucial rule to follow. Communications should begin before the drone is even off the ground, so ATC is aware of a drone in its airspace. The pilot-in-command (PIC) should have the capacity to maintain communication with ATC throughout the operation so ATC can correlate the position of the drone with the position of manned aircrafts.
Drone operators should also check with a neighborhood’s home owners association. Some may have special rules regarding unmanned operations, and pilots may need to seek special approval to fly their drones.
What’s the best way to navigate power lines or other obstructions?
Fly cautiously! Although there are some drones that have built-in obstacle avoidance, it would be unwise for a commercial operator to rely solely on the technology, especially in areas that are densely populated. A visual observer (VO) is a great asset to any drone operation. The VO’s job is to keep eyes on the drone and alert the PIC to any impending obstacles or hazards that might affect operations, including trees, power lines or curious wildlife.
What if other homes are in the shots?
It’s OK but not ideal. Privacy is one of the biggest topics being discussed in the drone industry, and specific laws regarding a person’s privacy varies by state. In Texas, for example, Gov. Code Section 423.002(a) requires professionals to obtain written consent from individuals appearing in images captured by drones. Without such permission, individuals must be unrecognizable. Although the law does not apply specifically to houses, it’s a good idea to apply the same considerations about images of homes.
The most important thing to remember when flying for business purposes is that drone operators should be considerate and transparent. Let neighbors know there will be a drone flying at a specific time on a specific day, and take the opportunity to safely teach them about a new and exciting application that they probably didn’t know about before.
The Unmanned Safety Institute (USI) is the industry’s most widely recognized leader in flight safety solutions for individuals, enterprises and organizations focused on integrating and operating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) for civil or commercial purposes. The Unmanned Safety Institute provides UAS flight safety training and certification to operational standards based on the adoption and modification of time-honored aviation safety practices. With over 150 instructors and over 4,000 customers around the world, including several Fortune 500 enterprises, USI is widely recognized as the global leader in UAS training and certification delivering the most highly-regarded training program of its kind. USI is the only training and certification organization that is accepted by the FAA, endorsed by major aviation insurance providers and whose training programs have been evaluated and recommended for college credit by the American Council on Education.