Drones: More than Just a Buzzword for Businesses

Updated Sept. 10, 2015 to include findings from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and update the number of FAA-approved exemptions

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 8, 2015
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It’s a bird, it’s a plane ... no, it’s a drone. More of them will be buzzing through the skies taking aerial photos, surveying property, delivering packages, inspecting bridges and conducting other tasks since the number of Federal Aviation Authority-granted commercial permits has grown to 1,475 as of Sept. 8, 2015.

More than 25 types of business operations have been approved by the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) commercially in the National Airspace System, according to a report that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released Sept. 10, 2015.

Using drones—known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs)—in the workplace is still fairly new. - See more at: /hrdisciplines/safetysecurity/articles/pages/drones-commericial-use-safety-risks.aspx#sthash.nqYNlioA.dpuf

Some companies, such as Amazon, which is advocating for drone-designated air space, intend to use drones to deliver products to customers. German company DHL Parcel announced its intention in 2014 to use “parcelcopters” to make deliveries of medications and “other urgently needed items” to a sparsely inhabited German island in the North Sea, it said in a news statement.

Improved Safety

The technology is seen by some as a way to conduct work that otherwise would be more costly, take more time or pose safety hazards if handled by individuals. 

A civil engineering firm that clears ice avalanches from remote roads across Canada, for example, began using drones in 2015 to improve worker safety, according to Bryan Field-Elliott, founder of PixiePath, a drone fleet management platform for commercial use.

“They use drones to examine the ice in order to strategize the best way to clear hazards,” as the pilot/engineer stands in a safe location while flying the drone over the hazardous area, he said of his client in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “This eliminates the need for engineers to physically walk across the ice.”

Drones could be helpful tools for property inspectors conducting roof inspections as well, according to Amy Goldyn, marketing manager for National Property Inspections. Inspecting certain types of roofs can be dangerous, especially those that are quite steep, she pointed out in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

“In these cases—as well as in states where inspectors are instructed not to physically walk [on] roofs during home inspections—drones can become the inspectors’ eyes,” she said. Otherwise, “inspectors must use a ladder and view the roof as best they can from the house’s eaves.”

It’s a topic the organization “has been closely monitoring for several years,” she noted.

Agriculture, utilities, and the oil and gas sector are starting to use drone technology, according to Jay Forte, vice president of business development for Sky-Futures. It was the 46th company to receive an FAA commercial exemption and has used drones to conduct onshore and offshore inspections for four years with oil and gas companies around the world.

“Our emphasis is flare tips, where gas gets discharged,” Forte told SHRM Online. “We can inspect a flare tip while it’s producing, whereas normally [an organization has] to shut down production” for that type of inspection. That’s a potential loss of millions of dollars, he added. Drones provide a good value proposition, especially where safety is concerned, he said, and can be used for inspections that would require an employee to be 200 feet in the air performing the same task. 

“Any time you can keep a person from working at heights [of more than four feet], dangling off scaffolding, is a good thing,” he said. Drones also can be used to conduct inspections that “might take a man days or weeks” and to capture imagery in a timely manner that is as good as, or better than, what an individual can do, he added.

Steve Metzman, president and founder of DroneLinx Aerial Services, agreed that using drones is “a no-brainer” where workplace safety is a concern because they eliminate certain hazards. 

Drones can be used to inspect cell towers, for example, rather than harnessing an individual to a skid of a helicopter, Metzman said. In 2014, there were 12 inspection-related fatalities at cell towers, according to the Virginia-based AUVSI.

Metzman also pointed to the safety hazards of conducting pipeline inspections in Alaska, “where there is no viable way to get machinery, a ladder or crane. 

“The only way to achieve those [pipeline] inspections was to put someone on the side of a helicopter and hover next to the structure,” he said. “There’s really no other way to get somebody there.” 

Employer Advice

Metzman offered some advice to employers considering drones for commercial use. One of the biggest decisions is choosing the right aircraft for their needs. 

Drones range in size, some with wingspans as large as a Boeing 737 and others that are smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane, according to the FAA. More than 50 companies, universities and government organizations in the U.S. are developing and producing about 155 unmanned aircraft designs. 

Metzman likened choosing the right UAS to choosing the right car. It requires identifying your needs— GPS capability, optic quality—and finding the equipment that matches those needs, he said.

Organizations also should take steps to mitigate risks, he pointed out.

“It can be a very dangerous undertaking with some pretty significant consequences,” he said. “The most important thing is that they go into this with their eyes wide open [regarding] all of the important aspects of undertaking this activity on their own,” he said. 

“The drones can do a fair amount of damage to property. One of the key things in operating [a UAS] is to remember that it really is a mini-helicopter. The blades spin very quickly, and they can get out of control ... and injure people. It’s essential that companies going down this path recognize this.” 

In December 2014, AUVSI and the Academy of Model Aeronautics launched the “Know Before You Fly” campaign with the FAA as a partner. The campaign educates consumers and business users about the safe and responsible use of UASs. Currently, commercial use of drones requires a pilot’s license, so it may be prudent for an organization to outsource its UAS operation, Metzman advised.

There also are legal issues to consider, according to Douglas J. Wood, managing partner of Reed Smith’s New York City office. He is the author of Crowded Skies: Opportunities and Challenges in an Era of Drones, a report that addresses legal issues posed by the rapid rise of drone technology.

“[UAS] operators must be aware of ancillary legal issues—such as intellectual property, insurance and land use rights—to avoid risks that include copyright infringement, invasion of privacy, bodily injury, property damage and trespassing violations,” he said in a March 2015 news statement. 

Sky-Futures’ Forte recommended that organizations not try to be “jacks-of-all-trades” in their initial commercial use of drones.

“There’s too much to know about each specific industry. Focus your energies on one” and use the technology wisely, he said. “We’re at the very beginning of this technology. ... Any incident that happens in these initial phases will just set back the industry” because everyone, he said, will be watching. 

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.​

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