During a special panel discussion at the 2015 Best of Success seminar, experts in the use and development of drones for commercial purposes kept most roofing contractors on the edge of their seats while discussing the fledgling technology.
During the hour-long discussion moderated by Heidi Ellsworth, of HJE Consulting Group, Tanya Michelle Brown, Patrick Lohman and Charlie Mondello walked the audience through the latest in drone regulations, technological advancements, and prospects for future business uses.
The first step was understanding the terminology. Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that fly above ground in air space regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Once outfitted with a camera, sensors, or any device that collects or measures data, the vehicles become an unmanned aerial system (UAS).
The next step is understanding the regulatory environment, which is evolving but remains very complicated. Under current federal law, only the FAA can authorize the use of drones for purposes other than recreation. That requires a manned pilot’s license, or a certificate of authorization exemption under Rule 333, which is currently difficult to obtain and involves a standard review process that takes four months.
“You can’t just go out and grab a drone … you’re probably violating someone’s local or regional laws,” said Mondello, president of the Property Drone Consortium (PDC). The consortium is a collaborative approach between leaders in the insurance industry, construction trades and several support enterprises to promote further research and development of regulations for commercial use of a UAS.
Alaska, Nevada and Texas are among the few states to have adopted laws pertaining to drones. Only a handful of others, including Florida, Illinois and North Carolina, have existing UAS legislation on the books. The legislatures for the majority of remaining states around the nation have introduced drone-related laws that are pending formal votes.
“The bottom line is every one of these states believes they own the drone,” Mondello explained while displaying a shaded map of the United States. “There’s also more than 3,200 counties, and they also believe they own the drone. The challenge for us is to get a handle on all of these organizations.”
This includes groups concerned about civil liberties and privacy.
The potential for unlocking key pieces of information that could make a roofing contractor’s job easier is relatively limitless, panelists said.
Drones equipped with the right sensors can help contractors understand the types and quantities of materials they need to complete a job, and even get more specific into the brand and installation quality of individual shingles on a structure.
They can also be extremely beneficial in helping determe the damage to a roof following a major storm or other weather event.
“We’re trying to understand the long-term performance of roofs as they age or go through various perils,” said Brown, director of hail research for the Institute for Business and Home Safety in South Carolina. “Are there damage patterns that you’re trying to understand? Are there changes in the materials over time that you’re trying to understand?”
The technology has evolved enough that researchers can collect elevation data points that can be customized to match a contractor’s traditional roof report following an inspection.
“We can measure anything that we can see automatically,” said Mondello, who is also chief industry strategist at EagleView Technology Corporation. “You can see every nuance of a lifted shingle. You can see the divots associated with hail damage, and it becomes a public, legal record. They have insight beyond what the eye can see, which is pretty cool.”
Other possibilities include using 3D imagery to assess different features of multiple buildings ranging from slope characteristics to flashings, all in the same flight. Creating a record that’s easy to track and can alert contractors to changes due to age, moisture content, and thermal heat loss without a contractor having to risk climbing the roof, can prove invaluable, too.
Lohman, COO of drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk, said the company currently specializes in a fixed-wing drone with a five-foot wingspan that resembles a model airplane. Though not yet in production, PrecisionHawk is developing a rotary system for drones that will allow them to hover and collect data, he added.
“Our focus is making sure that when you send it up in the air, it does its thing all on its own, and does so very intelligently and collects what it needs to collect,” he said.
Brown added that the speed at which the information is collected and shared should not be understated.
“When you think about the size of some of the big commercial projects out there, you might have thousands and thousands of feet of roof on a particular campus. Being able to capture all this information in a more automated, systematic way … to me that’s a huge advantage,” she said.
All the panelists agreed that the biggest obstacle to having drone use revolutionize how roofing contractors do their jobs are government regulations.
“There’s a lot of chaos out there right now. It’s the wild west out there still,” Lohman said.
Groups like the PDC in partnership with the National Roofing Contractors Association are working closely with officials in Washington D.C. to help push regulations forward that will make it legal to fly drones for commercial use.
Mondello said the FAA could move soon to simplify the current exemption process by issuing drone pilot’s licenses as opposed to the manned pilot’s license.
“It is unfortunate that it’s taking so long to deal with all the different air spaces, so it’s a challenge,” he said. “Hopefully they fix that, but that’s only one piece. You still have to deal with the privacy issues in every state that we’re sitting in.”