Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as “drones,” are appearing more frequently in the skies over construction project sites.

Drones  typically operate from a handheld device, such as an iPhone, and can be connected to a Wi-Fi network. The physical design utilizes four to eight rotary blades, which allow for fluid vertical movement and aerial stability. Such stability—the ability to hover in place for an extended period of time—can prove particularly beneficial for surveying a job site. Drones can be used to capture images of the work from above and then transmit the information to one of a number of mapping software programs, which are, in turn, used to analyze and monitor all phases of a project, from site preparation to completion.

Drones also are proving to be a valuable marketing tool, by allowing for aerial footage or video of job sites, which can be shown to clients and potential clients. In the near future, drones may be used for physical transportation of equipment and project materials. Indeed, multinationals, including Amazon and Google, have famously begun discussing the use of drones to transport and deliver goods to their customers.

Drone technology possesses the potential to fundamentally change the construction industry.

Governmental oversight and restrictions

Laws and safety regulations are starting to address this new use of drone technology. The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the governmental agency tasked with the regulation of civil aviation. Presently, the FAA allows for recreational, not commercial, use of drones weighing under .55 lbs., as long as the drones are not flown more than 400 feet above ground and not operated without permission near an airport or other location that may interfere with air traffic.

Although commercial use of drones is not technically illegal, the FAA requires commercial drone operators to apply for and obtain a Section 333 exemption. The process to obtain this exemption is cumbersome and slow, but contractors should be aware that the FAA has demonstrated it will not hesitate to levy significant (seven figure) civil penalties to contractors who are discovered using drones on project sites without the necessary Section 333 exemption.

The FAA continues to develop and finalize its drone regulations, and from a legal standpoint, the use of drones by construction contractors is still in an uncertain state of limbo. Beyond remaining mindful of the FAA requirements and regulations as they are updated, construction contractors would be well-served to implement their own internal guidelines with respect to the use of drones on the job site. For instance, drone operators should be required to go through a training protocol, and drone flight paths should be planned in advance and properly documented.

Stay tuned…

In 2016 for news regarding how the FAA and the courts respond to the continued advancement of drone technology. If you are contemplating using drones on your job site, you should consult with an attorney to consider the legal issues associated with this new and developing technology.