February, 2018
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors

To Drone or Not to Drone



The conundrum we struggle with is whether the drone is a tool or a toy. Is it worth all the hoops and hurdles one must overcome to use this new means of “getting high”? Every year, there’s a new tool or technology available to home inspectors. Over the last few decades, we have gone from using carbon paper in our reports to carrying out thermal imaging during inspections. Some of us make these adjustments better than others. It can be a dizzying dance, keeping up with those tech-savvy savants.

However, the use of drones in home inspections is a whole different animal. There are several ways to inspect a roof without using a drone and when those methods are insufficient, you can always disclaim the lack of inspection for good cause. But for many of us, using a drone is an alluring way to inspect a roof. For everyone who now uses a drone and for those who are contemplating investing in one, I’ve put together this primer.

Thumbs up, salute…here we go!

Toy to Tool: A Brief History of Drone Use in Home Inspections
How many of you are thinking about purchasing or have already purchased a drone? If you just raised your hand, you are not alone. It’s estimated that three million drones were shipped to the United States last year. There are more than 600,000 drones in commercial use and by 2020, there will be seven million drones in the United States. Photography is the primary industry that uses drones and real estate runs a close second. Whether or not you decide to use one yourself, it’s likely that you will be exposed to them in numerous aspects of your life–both personal and professional–in the future.

During the last three years, there’s been an impressive increase in the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). UAS and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are the professional terms for “drone.” If you’re considering using this tool, please understand that if you call it a “drone” among people who have UAS and UAV experience, you will be perceived as a hobbyist, not a professional. I could do a much more in-depth review of the history of UAS and UAV, but I won’t; classes are available that cover this in-depth and I suggest that you sign up for one if you’re interested.

Guidelines for Hobbyists and Commercial Operators
There are two types of UAS and UAV operators:

  • Hobbyists, whose use of UAS and UAV is governed by the American Modelers Association (AMA)
  • Commercial operators, whose use falls under the rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

During the last year and a half, the FAA has required (or considered requiring) several credentials to specify the type of flight operations in which users of UAS and UAV will engage. If you’re planning to commercially operate a UAS or UAV, Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA) is the controlling document. Section 333 begins like this: “By law, any aircraft operation in the national airspace requires certificated and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot, and operational approval.” Section 333 assigns the authority for air-worthiness determination to the Secretary of Transportation, and it provides specific guidelines for operating UAS and UAV. 

To address those of us non-hobbyists who use small, unmanned aircraft for, let’s say, a home inspection business, the FMRA’s Section 107 offers guidelines and, more importantly, waivers, depending on what operations or applications you plan to perform. (See relevant resources and web links at the bottom of this article.)

Important Notes About the Law and Guidelines

Since President Trump signed a directive regarding the UAS Integration Pilot Program
(www.transportation.gov/UAS-integration-pilot-program), representatives from several states have been researching and determining what local (state and municipality) regulations are recommended for implementation.

The bottom line is that the rules for UAS and UAV use are ever-changing. The information in this article is up-to-date as of December 2017, but by the time you read this, there may have been alterations or additions to rules for UAS and UAV use. It’s important that you familiarize yourself with the background in this field by going—now and often—to the FAA website.

Check your local laws before operating a UAS or UAV. Some municipalities such as the City of Charleston, SC, for example, prohibit the use of remote-controlled devices like airplanes and helicopters in city parks, recreation facilities or playgrounds. Another community—Mt. Pleasant, SC—bans the use of UAS and UAV, as well as balloons or kites in Memorial Waterfront Park.

The following safety guidelines for UAS/UAV use are not subject to change:

Never fly a UAS or UAV above 400 feet. (There is no reason why you should ever need to fly over 100 feet, in my experienced opinion.)

 Always keep your UAS or UAV in sight when operating it.

Never fly near other aircraft!

Never fly over people.

Never fly over stadiums or sports events.

Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires.

Never fly your UAS or UAV when you are under the influence of alcohol or any other mind-altering substance.

Always be aware of airspace requirements including, but not limited to, proximity to airports. Understand the three-mile rule.

Do I need to follow the certification rules?
Within the last few months, the FAA has published several guidelines for operating UAS and UAV. I’ve heard from several home inspectors around the country that they feel these rules do not pertain to them and that they do not plan to take the certification class. Furthermore, they do not feel the need to comply with FAA Section 107 guidelines. 

After attending several seminars, expos and national summits regarding this issue, I’ve learned that the guidelines coming from local municipalities, states and the FAA regarding UAS and UAV use are constantly in flux, and local municipalities and states are taking it upon themselves to self-govern.

A cautionary note: If you are using a UAS for business without having the requisite certification or if you are not following your local and national laws, you could easily lose your UAS, and you could lose your ability to own and use a UAS in the future. You also could have to pay some rather hefty fines, with no legal recourse. 

Don’t worry. I’m here to help. The information contained in the links referenced in this article can give you the information you need to fly professionally and to prevent you from experiencing fines, penalties or the loss of your equipment.

To begin, you should go straight to the FAA source, “Becoming a Pilot” (http://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/fly_for_work_business/becoming_a_pilot/). This site will give you free online training related to the content of the exam. Reviewing the materials should take approximately an hour and answering the sample test questions may take another hour or so. If you are debating whether you should take the Part 107 test, I highly encourage you to do so. If you’re on the fence, consider this…it’s free.

Why Consider Using a UAS or UAV?
You might be saying, “Why would I do all this? I don’t have to go up there per the ASHI Standard of Practice.” It’s easy to come up with reasons not to embrace new technology. Why should we? We can say “no” to this. We know what we do and why we do it, and we are firm in our decisions.

Inspectors, especially those of us with more than a few battle scars, might be hesitant to invest the energy into learning to use a UAS or UAV. It’s our nature; we are creatures of habit. Well, let me say this: Maybe you should at least consider using a UAS. 

UAS and UAV use is a hot topic for home inspectors. Leading members of the home inspection industry are continually considering how and whether to lobby the FAA for our own SoP to use UAS in home inspections—that is, so that we could set up a specific set of guidelines. These guidelines could describe how to approach the following:

  • Access to UAS training, software, FAA info, support groups and forums
  • Criteria for selecting appropriate UAS or UAV (that is, size and functions) for applications
  • Budget plans or suggestions on how to account for how much and for how long you will pay for equipment, licensing and training costs, among other things
  • Requirements for which licenses and certifications inspectors would need to obtain
  • Outlines for how, when and where inspectors could use the tool (Just like with thermal imaging tools, there are conditions in which use of a UAS or UAV is not feasible or safe.)
  • Suggestions for appropriate fees to request when using a UAS or UAV during a home inspection or during a stand-alone roof inspection (to be sure that there is a return on investment)

Finally, here are two questions that you could answer to help ASHI leaders tailor the approach to UAS and UAV use:

  • How involved would you like ASHI to be in getting you the information you need about UAS and UAV use? 
  • How involved would you like ASHI to be in working on the topic of UAS and UAV use, specifically legislation and regulation on the local and national level?

The subject of UAS and UAV use is long, complex and, for the immediate future, ever-changing. I can’t answer all of your questions in this one article, but I can point you in the right direction.

The sidebars offer links to necessary information that can help you understand and adhere to proper, safe and legal operation of UAS and UAV. Again, it is vitally important that you stay abreast of current rules and regulations, both local and federal, regarding UAS and UAV operation.

Bruce LaBell, ACI, owner of Royal Home Inspectors LLC, Scottsdale, AZ, has been a member of the ASHI Board of Directors since 2010 and is a Past- President of the Arizona chapter of ASHI. He served as chair of the ASHI Drone Task Force from 2015 through 2017, and he has been involved with the ASHI Foundation and ASHI Education Inc. Visit Bruce’s websites at www.royalhomeinspectors.com and www.justafungi.com.

Resources for Taking the FAA’s Initial Aeronautical Knowledge Test

FAA provides Airman Certification Standards (www.faa.gov/training_testing/testing/acs/). This site offers access to pertinent documents and organizes the material into subject areas and tasks. These useful documents help identify what you need to know for the test and what areas you need to work on.

The following link provides a slideshow, produced by the FAA, to help you become familiar with UAS and UAV operational rules: www.faasafety.gov/files/helpcontent/courses/5095_lms_faast/menu/index.htm

The AC 107-2 Study Supplement (www.faa.gov/documentLibrary/media/Advisory_Circular/AC_107-2.pdf) provides additional background on the rules and operational procedures of Part 107.

The FAA’s Remote Pilot—Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Study Guide (www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/handbooks_manuals/aviation/media/remote_pilot_study_guide.pdf) delves into airspace classifications, weather restrictions, operations and aeronautical decision making. You’ll need to know this material to pass the test.

Review and take the practice exam provided by the FAA at this link: 

Other Useful Links

Registration: http://www.registermyuas.faa.gov/

Accident Reporting: www.faa.gov/uas/report_accident/

Waiver Application: www.faa.gov/uas/request_waiver/

Notices to Airmen for Flight Planning: http://notams.aim.faa.gov/notamSearch/nsapp.html#/

U.S. Air Space Map: http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/air-space-map/

Federal, State and Other Drone Laws: http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/current-unmanned-aircraft-state-law-landscape.aspx

Weather Reports: http://www.aviationweather.gov/