What A/E Firms Need to Know about the Use of Drone Photography

by Kevin Kimmel

Without question, the demand for drone services is exploding across many industries. The opportunity to cost-effectively capture images and video is having a transformative impact on businesses of all types – including the A/E industry. With the boom in drone usage, the Federal Aviation Administration sought to tame the Wild West of sorts that had formed around the industry and create a process to ensure safe shared airspace. In August 2016, the FAA released their long-awaited guidelines for commercial use of Unmanned Aerial Systems or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – more commonly known as drones – in the national airspace system.

Prior to these FAA guidelines, the lawful use of small unmanned aircraft was limited to the few thousand specially certified pilots in the U.S., severely limiting broad (and easy) implementation of UAS-based information gathering. The new FAA guidelines kick the door for broader use of UAS wide open.

The FAA set a critical standard to support the safe use and operation of UAS technology, including requiring the successful completion of the FAA remote pilot certification program and registration of commercial approved aerial platforms with the FAA. The stage is now set for explosive growth anticipated in the worldwide UAS industry – expected to grow from a $20 billion worldwide industry to more than $200 billion by 2020.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) - is an all encompassing description that encapsulates the aircraft or UAV, the ground-based controller, and the system of communications connecting the two.

What UAS Can Do for A/E Firms
Gone are the days of outrageously expensive aerial shoots involving hiring a plane and pilot as well as a photographer or videographer and dealing with the complex logistics associated with this effort. From a purely marketing standpoint, this busts open budget possibilities.

In the greater context of how our work benefits our clients, UAS use frankly means even more. Every building, roadway, bridge, or complex we design becomes a valuable asset to our clients, and managing these assets requires detailed information, metrics, and data to ensure a long life.

From detailed building assessments to construction administration, UAS equipment is able to capture views that enable us to provide better service and design, often more quickly and at reduced cost. This new tool doesn’t change the expertise required to advise our clients, but it does have the potential to make our jobs dramatically easier, safer, and better for the end user.

A snapshot of the tasks aided by UAS application:

  • aerial photography and videography
  • a visual aid for clients
  • photometric land survey
  • GIS mapping integration
  • 3D stockpile analysis
  • visual, thermal, and multispectral inspection
  • point cloud 3D mapping
  • remote real time inspection

Picking the Right Drone Photographer or UAS Operator

To maximize your budget and get the highest possible value, identifying the right type of UAS operator to meet your particular need must be the first step in the selection process. Primarily, this question will center on whether you’re looking for a technical pilot/photographer who is licensed to fly a drone or a photographer who has a license but takes a more artistic approach.

For GIS, inspection, and construction applications, a technical pilot is often the most suitable answer. When it comes to UAS applications for GIS, surveying, and civil engineering, it is all about accuracy. UAS can provide incredibly beneficial data for clients of these services, but without ground control points to map the data with, accuracy can’t be assured. UAS footage xould help us build data points over time and respond accordingly. For example, using accurate ground control points and mapped UAS footage, a coastline can be evaluated annually pre- and post-hurricane season. Armed with this detailed, accurate insight, municipalities and engineering firms can assess erosion and develop appropriate, targeted interventions to protect our shores and make them more resilient.

For marketing and client presentations, planning and a creative eye is essential for a successful photo or video shoot. Put simply: angles matter. The story matters. To execute this story with footage that is both accurate and attractive, considerations include time of day, building siting, and goals for the photography (or videography). In terms of time of day, morning light is softer than afternoon, when the sun is overhead, while dusk footage can be used for a dramatic ending in a video.

Additionally, if you are getting drone photography in order to put a rendered building into the landscape, the shot should be set up to accentuate the side of the building you want illuminated. The photographer also needs to have sensitivity to the angle of the shot you’re looking for.

Knowledge of Airspace

Make sure the UAS operators you hire are licensed and knowledgeable about national and state regulations governing height limits and intended flight plans.

At Clark Nexsen, in-house UAS advocates provide guidance to our project managers, architects, and engineers interested in utilizing drone technology to support project delivery. Given the complex nature of applying this new technology and working within shared airspace, having internal experts who are licensed remote pilots supports our safe use of UAS.

Protecting Privacy

The FAA handles safety issues, not privacy issues. UAS photographers need able to traverse privacy issues and specific policies set for privacy in the photography site. While the FAA guidelines do not require prior approval from a property owner, it strongly recommended that the client/property owner is given advance notice of flight operation. Communication is key to mitigating risks of drones invading privacy.

This issue becomes particularly important on institutional campuses, such as colleges and universities, and at government sites. These clients may have concerns about protecting the privacy of individuals and they are likely to have many questions about a drone flying over the campus. Additionally, they may even have their own campus policies defining use boundaries that establish zones of privacy around dorms, childcare centers, and other sensitive facilities. Some institutions may require formal consent be given to the drone photographer from the property owner.

Contracts and Essentials

An effective contract is worth its weight in gold in a business setting. This protects both the A/E firm and the UAS operator. At Clark Nexsen, we’ve created a contract for use with UAS operators or companies that we work with. This contract dictates the liability and insurance that our UAS vendors are required to hold before we would hire them. If your firm creates a contract, talk to your insurance provider to make sure you are including the correct insurance diversity including drone liability, general liability, employer liability, worker’s compensation, and automotive per incident.

If you are signing a contract from a UAS photographer or company, ensure they have adequate insurance coverage and have obtained the required FAA and State certifications. Contracts should clearly state who owns the rights to the photographs or video footage and specific terms of those rights.

Basic elements for drone photography should include:

  • UAV Operation – photography and video (includes site reconnaissance, setup, safety check, flight operations)
  • Video and digital editing (clipping, merging, stabilization, image correction, etc.)
  • Mileage if applicable

While drone use may seem simple on the surface, there are many variables – legal and otherwise – that go into the successful use of this technology for A/E firms and clients. Being aware of these variables and working within all guidelines goes a long way to ensuring that you and your client will fully benefit from the use of drone photography and videography. Executed well, UAS can efficiently accomplish a wide variety of services that previously were too dangerous, required a large monetary and time commitment, or simply weren’t possible at all. This ability adds tremendous value for clients and designers, supporting sales and marketing and providing detailed information for facilities staff.

Kevin Kimmel, PE, is a senior fire protection engineer who serves on a recently established National Fire Protection Association technical committee tasked with developing standards for the use of UAS in emergency services. Kevin left Clark Nexsen in 2020 to pursue other opportunities.