Modified from Simon Frasier Univ

There is more than one way for architecture firms to enlist a drone—some with the government’s blessing and many more without. In the category of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which weigh less than 55 pounds, drones offer immense potential for capturing data, images, and videos, and inspecting inaccessible and hazardous areas. But a lack of clear regulations here in the U.S. (other countries, like Canada, offer more clear-cut terms) has led to confusion as to who’s accountable for what and to whom. Such ambiguity threatens the usefulness of the technology in the AEC sector.

In 2012, Congress tasked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with developing regulations that would ease the then-nascent technology’s entry into the commercial and consumer sectors while preventing its operators from going rogue. But the FAA has been slow to act. “For a long time, and continuing to this day, there are companies and people who dispute the assertion by the FAA that there are any laws or regulations prohibiting commercial use [of drones],” says Brendan Schulman, who heads up New York law firm Kramer Levin’s unmanned aircraft systems group. Unless their use of the technology threatens the safety or security of people or property, he adds, the dissenters have generally been left alone—for now.

The FAA is expected to deliver final rules on the use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds by 2017. In the meantime, the agency has created a path for firms that want to keep kosher. Last summer, it began permitting companies seeking to use the technology for tasks ranging from inspecting flare stacks in oil fields to shooting aerial video to carry out that work on a case-by-case basis. However, the process can be costly and take months. At press time, the FAA had issued 246 exemptions, under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, with hundreds more in the queue. In April, the administration began offering what it calls Summary Grants, which purport to cut through the red tape by giving companies blanket exemptions for certain drone-related activities based on precedent—in other words, if the FAA has approved one architecture firm’s request to use the technology for gathering site data, it’s likely that another firm with a similar request will also get the OK. But there’s a catch: Firms that want to apply for a Summary Grant must first obtain a Section 333 exemption that clears the type of work they want to do.

“This is all the consequence of not having a regulatory framework,” Schulman says. “If the FAA had issued regulations concerning commercial drones years ago like they were supposed to, then companies wouldn’t have to try to explain what they’re doing on a case-by-case basis. They would instead have a set of rules for any application that would tell them what to do and how to go about operating.”

Last month, the FAA closed a public comment period for its proposed small-drone rules. According to an FAA spokesman, the number (thousands) and nature (varied) of the comments will determine how long it takes to draft a final ruling and what those regulations might entail. “We really can’t speculate on when it’s going to be done,” he said.

In short, until the FAA’s rules are finalized, it’s (more or less) open season for firms that want to use drones now.

Flying on the Job

The most popular application for small drones is aerial photography and video capture. Seattle-based SRG Partnership recently used the technology to document its new Center for Student Success (CSS) at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, Wash. There, an atrium running the full length of the building is daylit with skylights and clerestory windows. Using a small UAV (DJI's S1000 fitted with a Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera), the team was able to capture the daylighting feature as well as highlight key building elements from various angles and elevations. “During the design process, we often look at our buildings from above to express form, function, circulation, and certain design features,” Molla says. “But once they are built, we can’t highlight or express those features anymore. Drone technology allowed us to showcase this building from above one more time to highlight its key elements in their final, built form.”

SRG worked with the Altanta-based FlyWorx, an aerial video and imaging service run by Molla’s brother Roman, to capture CSS. Working with third-party drone specialists such as FlyWorx can be an efficient option for smaller firms that want to use UAVs for aerial photo, video, and data gathering but don’t want to invest heavily in resources and training, or navigate the exemptions process solo. Roman says his company has worked with five or so architecture firms, mostly to capture photo and video for marketing purposes, though clients also solicit the firm’s data gathering services.

San Francisco–based global AEC firm Bechtel, in partnership with third-party service provider Skycatch, recently got the FAA’s approval to gather and analyze a variety of site data in the U.S. after proving the technology’s efficacy on a project in Australia, according to a press release. Skycatch’s drones can incorporate equipment such as high-definition cameras, infrared scanners, and thermal and radiation sensors.

Other firms are able to direct internal resources to explore the use of drones in architecture and construction. Ross Wimer, FAIA, who leads AECOM’s architecture practice in the Americas, says the company has pulled employees with experience gathering and analyzing drone data on the firm’s government projects for use in its commercial work. The company has also partnered with third-party service providers that have FAA Section 333 exemptions and has applied for an exemption of its own.

“Because [drones] are fairly complex tools, it’s hard [to use them] without the training and software to use the data you’re getting,” Wimer says. “There is a piece of it that relates to the technology that the government has developed. That’s what unlocks the capabilities of the tool.”

So far, AECOM’s use of small drones has included capturing views at specific elevations on the site of a proposed project to optimize a building’s design; monitoring manatees in shark-infested waters rather than flying a disruptive helicopter overhead; and inspecting the interior of an industrial smokestack, in which toxins are present, for structural integrity. The firm is currently using its in-house drone expertise primarily for its own projects, Wimer says, though he expects that as the technology becomes more widely understood, more clients will request it.

Just because you can (technically) use a drone, doesn't mean you should. We plotted potential uses of the technology in architecture and construction based on how likely each is to pass muster with the federal government compared to how practical the use is in the field.

Red Tape on the Horizon

The FAA’s proposed regulations estimated for 2017, as well as the constraints it has put on exemptions granted so far, stand to limit the use of drones in the AEC industry. Those limitations include flying after dark, out of the operator’s line of sight, above certain altitudes and in select airspaces, and near structures or above crowds of people. Plus, depending on the exemption, an operator would need to be a licensed pilot. There is hope: Earlier this month, the FAA announced a new research initiative to explore potential for flying drones beyond an operator's line of sight and in densely populated urban areas.

Moving objects around a jobsite—to transport tools or assemble components, for example—could also be forbidden because the FAA in its proposed rules views items affixed to a drone as an external load. Even if the FAA permits this use in the final version—don’t hold your breath—project teams would likely be limited to moving small tools and parts, or taking an inefficient number of trips to move, say, a pile of bricks or stack of lumber.

“Drones are a tool like any other piece of equipment,” Schulman says. “So the real question with these approvals is whether operating the tool under the restrictions that the government is imposing will actually assist the business operation.” In many cases, that’s still a no.

Advocates for the use of small UAVs think that one way to improve the technology’s value proposition is to separate the smallest of the small drones in a category with fewer restrictions to encourage their adoption by small and midsize firms that are unable to invest heavily in the technology. In December, Schulman put forth a proposal to create a “micro” drone category on behalf of his client, advocacy group the UAS America Fund, for drones weighing 3 pounds or less, operated at a low speed under 400 feet, outside of a controlled airspace and at least five miles away from an airport; his proposal also calls for operators to be exempt from needing a pilot’s license.

Adding a micro category to the forthcoming regulations is more important than the specific technical parameters, Schulman says. “The technology will be developed to fit into that regulated category to allow more open innovation and commercial use than under a very regulated approach,” he says. “I can imagine a small drone in every architect’s toolkit, but not if using it will require extensive licensing, registration, and reporting requirements.”

Need more drones? Take a fly-through of Peter Eisenman, FAIA's, City of Culture, in Spain.

This article has been updated from its original publication to include new information.