Precasters use the power of aerial drones to showcase their work, locations and products in a safe and confident manner.
By Bridget McCrea
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an … unmanned aerial vehicle? And according to a new ruling, you’ll need to follow FAA regulations and earn a pilot airman certificate if you’d like to use one for your precast concrete business.
In recent years, popularity of the devices more commonly known as drones has skyrocketed, with a recent report estimating that consumer sales are expected to increase tenfold by 2020.1 While many of the drones in the air today are used for recreational purposes, the potential for commercial applications means more precasters are taking to the sky.
It’s been about two years since Forterra Building Products started using unmanned, aerial drones to produce training videos for its different operational areas and visitor videos that offer a bird’s-eye view of how those areas operate.
“It just doesn’t look the same from the ground level,” said Charles Piwowarski, area environmental manager for the Irving, Texas-based company.
More recently, Forterra began using drones to create videos that showcase the company’s completed and in-progress projects. Piwowarski, who has been flying unmanned remote-controlled airplanes for about 20 years – long before the word “drone” was used in relation to recreational, unmanned aircraft – said they give precasters the opportunity to highlight projects and operations from an entirely new angle. And as long as drones are used in a safe, legal and responsible manner, they can be a great addition to a company’s sales and marketing portfolio.
“Drone videos and photography provide a completely different perspective on the work and products that we produce,” Piwowarski said. “A static photograph or even video that’s shot from the ground just doesn’t have the same impact that aerial photography does.”
Setting the rules
Defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as “an unmanned aircraft and the equipment necessary for the safe and efficient operation of that aircraft,” drones include aircraft that are operated without direct human intervention. These flying devices have been getting a lot of attention lately – not all of it positive. One of the more highly publicized drone-related events involved a crash landing on the White House lawn. Additionally, the number of near collisions between these unmanned aircraft and commercial pilots has increased over the last few years.
In August 2016, the FAA released the first operational rules for routine commercial use of small, unmanned aircraft systems.2 They are meant to quell the rising number of drone-related issues while also opening the door for responsible, trained individuals. The rules start the path toward fully integrating drones into the nation’s airspace – a move that could help companies harness new innovations safely, spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and even save lives.
According to Bloomberg, 3,300 people took the FAA’s new commercial drone pilot test on the first day that it was available. Les Dorr, FAA spokesperson, said the rules spell out what drone operators need to do in order to legally operate the small, unmanned aircraft systems. One point to keep in mind, he said, is that drones still can’t be operated directly over people unless the company obtains a waiver to do so.
“Now that the rules are in effect, companies have a reference point to look at and see what those rules cover and determine how the regulations impact the way they want to use the unmanned aircraft in the course of business,” Dorr said.
According to industry estimates, the new FAA rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and create more than 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years. In effect since August 29, the new rule offers safety regulations for unmanned aircraft drones weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations.3 A few key points covered in the FAA’s ruling include:
- Minimizing risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground. The regulations require pilots to keep an unmanned aircraft within visual line of sight.
- Allowing flights during daylight and during twilight if the drone has anti-collision lights.
- Addressing height and speed restrictions and other operational limits, such as prohibiting flights over unprotected people on the ground that aren’t directly participating in the unmanned aircraft system operation.
Dorr said precasters looking to capture video and images of plants should review the rules carefully and apply for any necessary waivers – namely, those that would allow the drone to fly over people. When applying for the waiver, Dorr said the precaster will have to “make the case that the operation can be done in a safe manner.”
“If your plant is in an urban setting, you’ll need to pay particular attention to this issue,” he said.
Showing projects off from the air
For C.R. Barger & Sons, in Lenoir City, Tenn., drones have become an important part of the project documentation process.
“We do flyovers of our projects from start to finish,” said Eric Barger, president. “We then take the footage and incorporate it into promotional videos that we post online and share with our existing and prospective customers.”
Barger said the company’s drone has so far been “fairly easy” to use and operate. He said learning how to maintain safe distance from buildings and other obstacles is a necessity, as is understanding that the drones can be difficult to operate in certain conditions.
“It’s best to fly them on nice, calm, clear days,” he said, adding that precasters should also have an end game in mind before putting their drones up in the air. Knowing in advance how much footage you want or need, for example, helps prevent double work.
“In some cases, we’ll fly it for 90 minutes over a completed project and then use just 30 seconds of that footage for the video,” he said.
For example, Barger & Sons uses its drone to document its Stone Strong retaining wall work. These videos help consumers, homeowners, business owners and developers better understand the company’s product offerings.
“These folks want to see videos and they want to see what your completed products and/or projects look like,” Barger said. “One of the best ways to fulfill these needs is by investing in a drone and learning how to use it effectively.”
He added that the actual drone flight is only half of the work. Once the footage is captured by and retrieved from the drone, you’ll need editing software to turn the video into shorter, useable snippets. Barger suggests using iMovie for Mac or Windows Movie Maker.
“Those programs are made for beginners who don’t have commercial video experience and they allow you to put everything together in a professional manner,” he said.
Barger said the time and money his firm spends on obtaining and editing drone footage pays off when it comes time to show off its handiwork.
“Everyone likes to watch videos and to see how a project comes together from an angle other than on the ground,” he said. “Aerial videos get everyone’s attention and give them a better idea of what’s going on with your product line.”
Sidebar: Don’t Let Your Investment Fly Away!
Drone flyaways are a hot topic on sites like YouTube, where you can watch dozens of videos of rogue drones with minds of their own flying off into the distance, crashing or otherwise going against their operators’ wishes.
“Some people assume that because they can operate a video game that they can fly a drone, but a lot of drones are lost because of this mindset,” warned Piwowarski.
According to Drone Enthusiast’s “How To Avoid Crashes And Flyaways,” the burgeoning industry is struggling to overcome the flyaway problem. Drone makers say their devices can zoom off or drift away with the wind for a variety of reasons, including software glitches, bad Global Positioning System data and lost connections to controllers. Many incidents end with the devices barreling into buildings, trees or bodies of water.
To stop errant machines, NASA recently created a tool that could help future pilots keep their drones nearby. It’s a special box that plugs into the drone and brings it to the ground if needed. A virtual safety net, the Safeguard system allows users to set parameters for a drone. The machine then checks those parameters to make sure it’s flying where it should be. If it ventures to the edge of the boundary, it’s supposed to fly back. If it doesn’t do that, the safety net sends the drone to the ground before it crosses into a “no fly zone,” according to Popular Science.
Piwowarski said precasters who want to avoid losing their drone investments should start by learning how to fly the devices rather than just relying on the “smart mode” option.
“This option lets people who don’t really know how to use a drone fly one, but that can be a problem,” he said. “They start using them and don’t even realize that, ‘Hey, it just flew away.’”
One of the best ways to avoid the flyaway problem is by hiring a professional to show you how to use the drone, at least for its first use.
“If precasters want to use drones for all of their projects, it pays to get help up front and really learn how to do it right,” said Piwowarski, who also advises companies to invest in a basic drone first. “Once you learn how to fly it and operate it safely, then spring for the more expensive one.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing, industry and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.