Fight or flight? The use of drones in the UK construction industry

The Drone (Regulation) Bill is currently before Parliament and is intended to regulate the purchase and use of drones weighing five kilograms or more.  As the use of drones in construction projects appears to be on the rise, should the construction industry be paying more interest in the Government’s plan to regulate their use?

What are drones and how are they used in the construction industry?

A drone is an “unmanned” flying aircraft used primarily to collect data. It is classed as “unmanned” because the aircraft is controlled by somebody on the ground who directs where the drone goes.

The use of drones in construction projects appears to be on the rise. Examples of drone use in construction projects includes:

  1. Surveying land and buildings;
  2. Reaching areas that are inaccessible/unsafe for construction workers to access;
  3. Protecting construction sites from theft and vandalism; and
  4. Transporting goods to and from inaccessible parts of a site.

According to Balfour Beatty, drones have recently been used to inspect two bridges in West Sussex with reported savings in excess of £8,000 when compared to traditional inspections.

What does the Drone (Regulation) Bill actually mean?

At present, the “drone code” applies to the use of domestic flying drones in the UK, which includes very basic restrictions on where drones can be flown and at what height. However, where drones are flown for commercial reasons (i.e. where the owner of the drone is being paid), a licence is required from a body associated with the Civil Aviation Authority. 

On 22 July 2017, the Government announced its plans to register drones and have their users sit safety awareness tests for drones weighing five kilograms or more. This is a significant step forward and, in summary, includes:

  • Owners of drones weighing 250 grams and over having to register details of their drones to improve accountability and responsibility; and
  • A new drone safety awareness test being implemented for owners to ensure each drone owner is aware of safety, security and privacy regulations in the UK.

The Bill was presented to Parliament on 5 September 2017 and is expected to have its second reading on 15 February 2019.

Impact of drone regulation in construction projects

With the appeal of cost savings, health and safety risk avoidance and the ability to survey land and buildings previously inaccessible (to name a few), the use of drones in construction projects is likely to surge over the next decade. However, to what extent this surge is capped will depend on any restrictions imposed by the Government and how hard, or not, it becomes to use drones in everyday construction activity.

It is likely that employers, contractors, professional teams (and lawyers!) are likely to see “drone negotiation” become the norm as licences and liabilities for drone use are “drafted in” to construction contracts. Given this likelihood, the Drone (Regulation) Bill is a piece of legislation that should be monitored closely to ensure the benefits of drone use do not become too onerous meaning their benefits simply fly away. Let’s all watch this space.

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