They may look like toys for hobbyists and enthusiasts, but drones, quadcopters, and other unmanned aircraft systems are also being employed for many practical business reasons in a variety of industries. These nimble aerial machines are light, compact, and can be outfitted with a number of devices like cameras, microphones, and other sensory equipment. In short, a drone can take on all the risk that a human worker normally would, without the threat of injury or fatality. However, improper use of drones can pose its own risk factors.
Drones Go Where Employers Fear to Make Workers Tread
Construction is a natural fit for drones. Getting an aerial view of a job site used to be an expensive proposition that involved hiring a helicopter. With a camera-equipped drone, site surveys can be performed quicker, cheaper, and with both feet on the ground. Inspections also become easier when the drone can be piloted to different locations and different floors much faster than physically sending the inspector to view the work in person. And since one of the leading causes for injury and death in construction is falling, having one less body walking around means less risk overall.
Another practical application for drones is any situation that might expose a worker to environmental hazards, like dangerous chemicals, exposed powerlines, unstable terrain, and more. For example, a poisonous gas could be leaking from an unknown source inside a large factory. A drone could navigate along the pipes to search for the breach. In more dire situations, a drone could be part of the disaster recovery efforts, surveying damaged areas that have become unsafe for workers.
As unmanned aircraft systems become more popular for businesses, the FAA has found it necessary to regulate their commercial use. The specific Code of Federal Regulation is 14 CFR Part 107, which went into effect in August of 2016. Here are a few requirements as outlined in Part 107:
- Operators must pass an aeronautical knowledge test, administered for a fee at an FAA-approved center, to obtain a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.
- The UAS must weigh less than 55 pounds and remain in the line of sight of the operator or a visual observer.
- The UAS must be flown less than 400 feet above ground level; if that elevation is exceeded, the UAS must remain within 400 feet of a structure.
- Operators must fly at or below 100 mph while yielding the right of way to any nearby manned aircraft.
- Operators cannot fly drones over unprotected individuals on the ground who are not part of the operation, are under a covered structure or are inside a covered stationary vehicle.
So while drones may reduce the risk to workers in various ways, drones are still operated by humans, which can cause an injury if not properly regulated. At the time of this writing, OSHA does not have any rules regarding drone use specifically. Nevertheless, organizations that employ drones should always practice a “safety first” approach and ensure that the technology helps protect workers rather than increase their risk by having one more machine to be mindful of.
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