6 Questions to Ask When Hiring an End-to-End Drone Service

Drone technology can save you time and money, but not all drone services are equal.

Drones are rapidly changing the landscape for construction companies. According to the 2018 Construction Technology Report from JBKnowledge, 37 percent of companies surveyed are now using drones on construction projects. Time- and money-saving applications range from inspections and surveying to materials management and progress mapping.

Some companies are going it alone with an in-house drone operation, but that approach can quickly become a headache. One of the largest construction companies in the U.S. ended up hiring United Rentals for end-to-end drone service after initially running its own program. With one pilot and two drones, the company couldn't keep up with demand.

"They were struggling with scale," said Helge Jacobsen, vice president for operational excellence at United Rentals. "Even one that had a million and a half dollars' worth of brand new drones in a warehouse ended up using us because scaling a program beyond one site is actually really hard."

Hiring an end-to-end drone service can be a practical and scalable way to adopt this technology, but finding a provider capable of meeting your needs is essential. Ask these questions as a starting point.

Are your pilots licensed and in compliance with regulations?

Make sure the pilot holds a Remote Pilot Certificate with a small UAS rating, and ask what kind of drones they have. Also ask the company how they comply with federal, state and local regulations for the application you need. Strict FAA rules apply to the use of drones, but not every drone service understands them or knows how to comply with them.

The pilot should know, for example, how to stay below maximum speed and maintain work-zone boundaries when encountering wind shear caused by the presence of buildings and heavy equipment, and how to maintain visual line of site. Any commercial drone operator should also know which kinds of airspace require permission from air traffic control. (The answer: class B, C, D and E airspace).

Do you have experience working at busy construction sites?

Not all operators know their way around construction sites or are familiar with the necessary safety precautions.

"There's a difference between getting a drone up and taking some cool shots of a valley and being in an active job site where you have 250 people and 100 pieces of machinery," Jacobsen said. "Being safe in that kind of environment is just different."

How big is your operation infrastructure?

Putting a drone pilot on a plane isn’t cheap, and getting a drone's lithium batteries onto the plane can be an issue, too. A company with a local operation infrastructure will likely be more cost-competitive, as well as more convenient, for companies operating in more than one place. United Rentals' end-to-end drone service, for instance, operates from 1,200 branches.

Do you have liability insurance?

It's smart to ask about liability insurance. Drone operators in the U.S. are not required to have it (unlike in Canada), but it's still a best practice. Ask for details, including the types of accidents and amount of liability covered.

Can you deliver useful data in context?

Data is all but useless unless it drives better, faster decision making. Ask not only about the data the service will provide but also how it will be made available. You want a platform that’s easy to navigate and a company that will slice, dice and analyze the data so it’s actionable.

"We do the data manipulation and analytics, and we have a really slick portal where you very easily can access the information you're looking for," Jacobsen noted.

How do you maintain a safety culture?

Drones can increase worker safety, such as by performing dangerous inspection work in lieu of human workers, but they can also add risk without proper hazard identification and mitigation. Evaluate the safety procedures of a drone service as you would when hiring any contractor that's going to work onsite.

An end-to-end drone service can help construction companies increase productivity and save money while avoiding the hassle of developing and maintaining an internal program. Yet the payoff largely depends on finding a provider that fits your needs.

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Russell McLendon is an Atlanta-based writer and editor who covers a variety of topics related to nature, science and technology.