Drone Building Inspection, Urban and Rural

When it comes to commercial drone use, building inspection — like aerial photography — just makes sense.

It’s quicker, safer, and costs a fraction of the price of a manual inspection. 

And the rural applications are just as useful as urban ones. “Due to the amount of red tape that accompanies flying UAVs in the city, we focus our attention and resources on helping our clients in the agricultural sector, and building inspection is quite a necessary element in that industry,” said Matthew Johnson, owner of M3 Aerial Productions in Winnipeg, Manitoba. 

Johnson gets excited about what he does.

“We have done inspections on grain elevators, something that some of the ones we have looked at thus far haven’t had done — ever!” he said. “It is amazing what you can see when you can get a 16 megapixel camera within a few feet of the side of an 80-year-old wooden tower, 120 feet above the ground — or, what you can’t see, which is more like it.  Board sections that have been rotted out, levers that have rusted away, holes in grain bins and insect infestations! Getting right up in there, you can get a great idea of what needs to be done and what needs to get fixed. Corroded safety pins and latches, and cracks in a cement exterior wall — these are just a few of the discoveries that UAVs can help get a bearing on!”

But as much as Johnson loves his job, it isn’t as simple as just throwing a drone into the air. And there are differences when you look at urban environments versus rural ones.

“It is complicated to fly a drone in the city,” said Johnson. “First of all because of the horizontal distances required as a ‘buffer zone’ between areas where civilians may be walking, or driving.”

Then there’s the matter of getting approval for the flight from surrounding property owners. “Consent from property owners is required from any property within 100 feet of the operation,” said Johnson. “A hundred feet isn’t that much when you are flying an agricultural operation, using infrared sensors to gauge the health of a potato field; but 100 feet in the city is an enormous area, and depending on the location, could imply that several properties may be affected, and permission from the owners must be provided.”

Johnson said that most of his work is done in wide open rural farm fields of the Prairies and Atlantic Canada. But just becuase he’s flying in a field, miles away from packed city blocks, with crowds below and planes in the air, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about and plan for.

“I don’t see the passenger jets flying overhead like I do in the city, but I do see the crop dusters zipping around, hopping from field to field, and that is a huge concern for me,” said Johnson. “We take extreme cautions whenever we are flying to ensure that we are contacting those small local airstrips and letting them know that we will have a UAV operating at a specific GPS coordinate.”

UAVs operate in highly specific perameters, which means Johnson can be really specific about how much airspace he’s going to take up. “Say I am operating over a quarter section,” explained Johnson. “I am not going to be straying from that quarter section, and it is quite safe for a duster to fly on by a half mile away. The danger comes when farmers start thinking that they are out in the middle of nowhere and can fly their drones over their property if and whenever they choose, and neglect to inform those air strips of what they’re doing.”

He said the most important thing to keep in mind is that drone pilots are just that — pilots. “Safety of the public seems to be Transport Canada’s primary goal with the regulatory system they have in place with the Special Flight Operation Certificates,” said Johnson. “They want to know that a UAV operator understands everything about their hardware, the environmental conditions and limitations, and have strong situational awareness that is required to be a pilot. Yes, a UAV operator is a Pilot. People need to acknowledge the fact that they are not flying toys, they are operating aircraft.”

The benefits of using a drone for building inspection

A recent article in the Globe and Mail tells the story of Kirt Ejesiak, a resident of Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Canadian north. Although he bought his drone to take real estate photographs, he soon discovered that he could make money by doing aerial inspections. 

Proper building maintenance means doing regular, visual inspections of the exterior. The problem is that sometimes it can be difficult to see parts of the outside of the building, particularly if it is more than a few stories. Even a roof inspection on a one-storey home would be impossible without climbing up and taking a look. 

This is where Ejesiak realized that instead of performing the time consuming and potentially dangerous task of setting up a ladder, climbing up, and walking on the roof to check its condition, he could just send his drone up, document with photos or video, and analyze the footage later.

Ejesiak isn’t alone in realizing that not only is that option more thorough, it’s also safer and quicker, especially if the building is tall. Using drones for building inspection is also a fraction of the cost to do a survey or an inspection using a harness and line off the top of a building.

“Drones can detect defects and anomalies that a naked eye cannot which is useful in data collection,” says David Carlos, of Victoria Air Photos and Survey. “This is especially true for drones equipped with thermal imaging and infrared cameras, which can detect heat signature losses and other data.”

But it isn’t quite that easy — Transport Canada regulations much be followed at all times, and only a veteran UAS pilot should attempt the inspection. GPS guidance systems are not reliable the closer it gets to a building, and manual flying will be necessary if the GPS is suddenly disabled or lost.

Privacy and ground security are also challenges. “These can be mitigated with proper advance safety notice and permission form building management, security, as well as the occupants,” says Carlos. “We want to warn them of the UAV flight activity in the area so they are not alarmed and remain clear of the flight path.”

In order to legally fly your drone commercially, you must obtain a Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada.

If you plan to hire someone to use a drone for an aerial inspection, here are a few questions you should ask the contractor:

Do they have an SFOC? 

The drone pilot must have an SFOC to comply with Transport Canada’s regulations. 

Are they insured? 

Transport Canada requires a minimum of $100,000 liability insurance on any drone being flown for commercial purposes.

What kind of camera do they have?

The drone is only one half of the operation — you also need high quality images to do a thorough inspection.