So what is all the buzz about drones? The buzz could be the drone itself, which can sound like a swarm of bees flying overhead. However, the media buzz is more about drones delivering pizza or your latest online order directly to your doorstep.


Although people are more familiar with the word “drone,” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) uses the term “unmanned aircraft system” (UAS). The type of drone used by hobbyists is referred to as a “small UAS” (sUAS). Their origins can be traced back through many decades when radio-­controlled (RC), fixed-wing model airplanes were first introduced. The multirotor version became available just a few years ago, and almost immediately, it was being equipped with cameras and adapted for commercial use.


Depending on the project, both fixed-wing and multirotor drones can be used in commercial applications. The multirotor type is generally better suited for photography and video. Fixed-wing drones have the ability to fly for longer periods of time, so they are used where larger areas and distances need to be covered.


According to an FAA forecast, the number of drones sold for hobby use will more than double from 1.9 million in 2016 to 4.3 million in 2020. The number sold for commercial use will triple over the same period from 600,000 to 2.7 million.


Drones for commercial use


Brian Deatherage has been flying drones in commercial applications since 2008, long before the recent growth. He and his business partner Mark Yori founded Phoenix Drone Services, and like so many good startup stories, this one began as a hobby in a garage almost 10 years ago.


Originally flying for fun, Deatherage was always developing creative modifications, such as extending the range and the capabilities. It didn’t take long before he realized he could equip his drones with cameras and other data-gathering and inspection devices. This hobby soon turned into a business venture with a fleet that could be used for construction inspections, 3-D mapping, utility infrastructure inspections, thermography, volumetric mapping and much more. 


Project and construction monitoring


Drones rigged with video equipment have simplified construction site monitoring and inspection. Progress photography and video can be created by flying the exact same route using autonomous control, which employs a preprogrammed flight plan that captures the same view, elevation and angle each time for a consistent record of the progress.


Project and construction managers can use photos and video for tracking and monitoring site assets—such as construction equipment—and many other purposes, such as investor information, marketing and advertising.


Surveying and 3-D mapping


Surveying and mapping is not what it used to be. What previously took teams of people a significant amount of time can be done much more quickly by one person with a drone properly equipped to capture the data.


One such data-capturing system is lidar—light detection and ranging—based on principles similar to radar. A lidar-equipped drone can capture billions of data points when flying over large areas. The data can then be used to create high-resolution images for 3-D maps and topography to volumetric calculations, forestry and crop management and everything in between.


An example of a volumetric application is surveying an open pit mine. Data can be collected weekly or monthly, and then software applications calculate the volume of the pit. As a result, managers can determine the amount of material extracted from the mine, which can be compared with previous calculations.


Lidar is able to filter out reflections from vegetation and trees so the model is of the actual ground surfaces such as rivers, paths, structures, etc., which may otherwise be hidden under foliage.


Thermal imaging


Infrared (IR) cameras perform many functions involving inspections and monitoring temperature. For example, they can help determine the temperature at which components or systems are operating, or they can look for human heat signatures in search and rescue operations.


FLIR makes an aerial thermal imaging kit, which can be used for building or electric utility inspection. These packages include a DJI Inspire 1, Zenmuse XT thermal camera, Zenmuse X3 4K visible light camera, and accessories bundled together. Contractors could use it to find hot spots or conduct inspections remotely. 


Electric utility infrastructure inspection


Electric utility infrastructure, such as transmission and distribution lines and substations, need periodic inspections for damage that may result from weather phenomena such as lightning. Traditionally, inspection crews would have to walk along a line’s right of way, sometimes climbing structures or using manned aircraft such as helicopters to visually assess the line and component conditions.


Today, equipped with cameras, thermal imaging equipment and other instrumentation, drones can fly along the lines and provide the inspection. In addition to being more efficient as well as the potential economic advantages, there is another big advantage: safety. Using drones for electrical infrastructure can help keep electrical workers out of the path of electrical risks, fall hazards from climbing structures, and other dangers.


Legal cases and forensics


Drones have even found their way into lawsuits. Deatherage described a case in which a local town was facing legal action over the construction of a golf course. The dispute centered on a concern that the final course as constructed did not match the original 3-D design rendering. The town contracted for an aerial video survey that was compared to the rendering. The video verified the newly completed course did look like the original rendering, and the issue was resolved.


Camera-equipped drones also can be used in forensic and accident cases. Often at the request of insurance companies, a high-resolution video of the accident site can be created immediately after first responders have departed. This application preserves a visual record of the evidence and scene.


Drones, explosive growth and the FAA


Regulation regarding flying RC model airplanes has been in place for years. However, RC model airplanes were not permitted to be used for commercial operation. With the introduction of multirotor drones and the desire to use them for commercial applications, the FAA introduced a Section 333 exemption in 2012 for commercial drone operators in the United States as a stop-gap measure until specific regulations could be developed. However, as the industry grew, the new requirement challenged many early commercial drone pilot entrepreneurs.


From having to wait upward of five to seven months for their exemption to be granted, to also needing to hold a traditional manned aircraft pilot license, thousands of commercial drone pilots struggled to push their businesses forward.


On June 21, 2016, the FAA finalized a regulatory framework for drones in the sUAS category. Referred to as Part 107, these regulations effectively create a sUAS certification process that covers the majority of low-risk, commercial flight operations. Part 107 went into effect on Aug. 29, 2016. A 624-page rulebook—placing many limitations on small commercial drone operations—came with it.


For example, Part 107 limits the weight of drones to a maximum of 55 pounds. They are allowed to fly at altitudes up to 400 feet with exceptions for flying close to structures under inspection, and the operator may not fly the drone out of visual contact. There are many other operating restrictions.


According to Yori, if a project’s requirements are outside the scope of what Part 107 permits—such as flying the sUAS out of the line of sight—the requirements become much more complex. So far, Phoenix Drone Services has been able to successfully navigate these requirements and still undertake many interesting projects.


The sky’s the limit!


With Part 107 making the requirements for commercial drone operation simpler, combined with the growth of using them for everything from construction inspection to utility infrastructure monitoring, data collection, mapping and more, commercial drone operators will continue to push the envelope and develop new uses for this rapidly evolving technology.


And, someday, that buzzing sound overhead may be your pizza being delivered.