By Lauren Elmore, Published in Occupational Health & Safety.

Drones have exploded in popularity thanks to their versatility and the growing accessibility of the devices, but numerous regulations enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration have prohibited their mass adoption.

Regulations are extensive, and they include registering your drones; maintaining an altitude of less than 400 feet; following all FAA airspace restrictions; and avoiding other aircrafts, groups of people, and emergencies or disaster efforts. In addition, the blanket ban on flying drones out of eyesight of the user, known as the “line of sight rule,” effectively prevents them from being used as delivery vehicles in potentially large commercial applications.

Legal restrictions aside, there are other circumstances that prevent drone pilots from being able to fly safely. Heavy winds in excess of 25 mph are dangerous and can compromise photo quality and decrease battery life, as the motors are forced to compensate for wind gusts to maintain a steady position. Rain can also damage electronics, and the accumulation of water droplets on the lens of a drone’s camera makes photography nearly impossible.

Taking to the Air

While regulations are largely responsible for keeping drones grounded, recent changes are helping the unmanned aerial vehicles take flight without the miles of red tape. The most significant change is the implementation of the Low Altitude and Authorization and Notification Capability program, which enables commercial drones to be quickly approved for use in a wide range of controlled airspaces.

Previously, drone operators wanting to fly in any airspace controlled by an air traffic facility had to wait for approval per the FAA’s Part 107 small drone rule. This requirement has historically resulted in wait times of 90 days or more and proved to be a major obstacle to commercial drone operation. Now, drone pilots can use LAANC to get authorization almost immediately, allowing them to focus on flight plans while automatically keeping air traffic controllers aware of planned missions.

One of the issues surrounding drone use is that technology has been advancing at a pace that doesn’t allow federal regulators to keep up, and requests for airspace restriction waivers have created a significant backlog. As the FAA looks for solutions to a problem that will no doubt continue to grow, automated systems will become essential. In the last four months of 2016, the FAA fielded more than 28,000 applications for the remote pilot in command certificate, and the agency was able to issue almost 23,000 certificates.

Business Is Booming

In January 2018, the number of drones registered with the FAA surpassed 1 million. According to the 2016 “FAA Aerospace Forecast,” that number is expected to reach 7 million by 2020. When drone technology was just emerging, the media industry was one of the first in line to reap the benefits. The aerial perspective allowed by drones helps elevate cinematic storytelling, and movies, TV shows, advertisements, and news segments regularly feature drone footage today.

The real estate market was also quick to utilize consumer-grade drones as a tool for producing high-resolution images and video for multiple listing services. The ability to stitch these images together and analyze them for data has also made drones invaluable to the mining and aggregates industry, and 3D mapping techniques based on photogrammetry help companies measure the volume of stockpiles in a much more cost-effective manner. The same procedures are implemented in the agricultural space to give farmers unique insights about their land and crops.

In some circumstances, drones are even taking on roles in the public safety space. The Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina has two drone units that take to the skies to help officers on the ground, whether they’re searching for a missing person or trying to apprehend a suspect on the run. So far, the drone program has cost less than $100,000, while an entry-level helicopter program has a price tag of around $1.3 million.

For health and safety professionals who are currently using or considering drone solutions, there are a couple important considerations to maintain safety and legality in UAV operations:

Observe the 3 Rs

1. Maintaining compliance with the regulations covered in FAA Part 107 is critical to a safe operation. That being said, don’t abandon common sense — just because something isn’t specifically prohibited by the FAA doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

2. Respect is also critical when flying your drone. Always ask for permission from clients or landowners, and be transparent about your intent to collect data. When in doubt, overcommunicate.

3. Finally, practicing restraint means avoiding the temptation to multitask and keeping your drone grounded in dangerous situations involving high winds or inclement weather. Not only are these conditions unsafe, but they also put your drone in jeopardy and typically result in unusable image quality.

Promote a Safety-First Culture

Implement standard operating procedures to establish a culture of safety and minimize accidents. Mitigating risk is about consistency and following safe practices on a daily basis without fail. In other words, it’s not enough to simply establish procedures and rules; you have to “walk the walk.” Safety requires you to maintain 360-degree awareness of your surroundings — a goal that takes effort and practice.

Drone technology is constantly evolving, and it has the exciting capacity to change how certain tasks are performed. As it revolutionizes industries, it’s important to keep safety top of mind. Flown carelessly, drones can be dangerous. But a methodical and consistent approach to safety will minimize accidents and maximize your return on investment.