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Blog: Using Drones for Building Inspections

Commercial building management is best done proactively. Inspecting your building envelope for wear and damage at least once a year is not optional if you want to catch water infiltration and deterioration issues before they have a chance to escalate into dangerous conditions and costly damage.

Exterior building inspection itself can be risky and expensive. Traditional methods require a qualified professional to inspect the building in person. This can involve climbing up onto the roof and other parts of the structure with the aid of a climbing harness and/or scaffolding. Needless to say, the work is time-consuming and dangerous. 

Until recently, property managers had the choice of risking life and limb to do the job or paying to hire a professional inspector. Now, there is a third option: drones. 

Why use drones for building inspection?

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are essentially flying robots. They are probably best known for military applications but, in recent years, they have become increasingly used for commercial purposes—building inspection is one. 

Drones can significantly reduce the time and expense of commercial building inspections when compared to conventional methods. Using software such as DroneDeploy, a trained person can easily fly a small, camera-equipped drone over a building to capture imagery. The footage is then used to make a high-resolution map or 3-D model of the building for inspection.

There are many pros to this approach—cost is one. Depending on equipment and location, rates to hire a drone pilot range from $100 to $450 per hour. Typically, you would pay the drone pilot less than it would cost you to insure the person who would have been hanging off the side of your large commercial building. 

The drone can also be deployed very quickly and capture the necessary footage in hard-to-reach places much faster than a human could. A typical drone flight can be completed in 5 to 20 minutes depending on the size of the building.

“We are able to get a drone team on-site the same day a property owner calls us and, within 30 minutes of arriving, we have finished up with the inspection,” says Chris Bonnet, CEO of Drone Dispatch, a nationwide drone service provider.

The images that result are easy to share and interpret, and they provide an overview of the building that many prefer to a report collected by sampling individual data points through manual inspection. Some drone providers are also able to stream what the drone sees in real time, which allows the property manager to assess conditions from the ground by watching the drone operator’s monitor. 

In addition to maintenance inspections, drone-generated video footage can also be a very useful marketing tool.

“We have utilized drones in the past as a new tool to both supplement our due diligence process and give investors a better look at what they are investing in,” says Jordan Sale, director of marketing at real estate investment firm Fundrise

“[We] found that it was a cost-effective way to offer another unique perspective for our investor,” he says. “On the whole, using a drone was most valuable as a fun tool to highlight our investment’s prime location and provide a site-visit ‘feel’ to stakeholders who aren’t able to visit a property in person.”

The shadowy side of drones

No technology is perfect, and drones are no exception. It can be difficult to capture necessary imagery of structures with overhangs, for example. As a result, the modeling of surfaces from above tends to be rendered better than surfaces that are visible only from the side or below. 

Drone propellers are extremely durable and operate at high speeds. Imagine a flying blender base and you will get the picture: The blades can easily slice through wood or bone. 

Risks include damage to your property, serious injury to people and, potentially, a lawsuit if the pilot hurts someone—especially if the pilot is uninsured. For this reason, hiring an experienced drone service provider is a more prudent option for most property managers than trying to do drone inspections in-house.  

What to look for in a drone provider

Michael Plambeck, owner of Dronethusiast.com, suggests asking the following questions before hiring someone to use a drone around your property: 

1.    Are they insured? Drone pilots working under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Section 333 Exemption (essential for legal operation of drones for commercial purposes) are required to have insurance. Make sure you ask for a copy of their proof of insurance.

2.    What experience do they have flying close to buildings? Ask them for video footage from another inspection they may have done so you can grade the quality of their piloting. Is the video shaky? Do they hit the building? 

3.    What sort of camera do they have on their drone? You will want a pilot who at least has an HD camera, and a 4k camera is even better. The higher the detail, the better your inspection will go. 4K quality will allow you to zoom in to the footage and examine any structural damage in great detail.

Be aware, too, that the FAA prohibits drones from flying within 5 miles of an airport or above an altitude of 400 feet unless the drone company is able to get permission to do so in special circumstances. Drone regulations are still in their infancy, but the FAA is expected to release updated regulations in the summer of 2016 to further govern drone use. 

Is there a drone in your future?

Is inspection by drones a good option for your property? That will depend on many factors, including your building’s location topography, availability of trained drone pilots in your area and the cost of traditional inspection methods for your building. However, even if you decide it’s not for you right now, this technology is just starting to come into its own. 

Keep your eye out for refinements and advancements (such as drone-deployed thermal imaging technology) to become available soon. Chances are, sooner or later you will find yourself taking flight into the world of drones.

Have you used drones for property inspection? What was your experience? 


Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer with expertise in areas including construction, small business management and sustainability (www.thegreeninkwell.com).

Be sure to join the Lowe’s ProServices LinkedIn Group to read additional content and interact with other Construction/Trade and MRO professionals.

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