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Remote Inspections (Use of Drones, etc.)
December 20, 2022
A picture is worth a thousand words, but what about a drone video? To construction firms and the lawyers who represent them, drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs”), enable firms to capture large amounts of high-quality information in a quick and efficient manner. Whether a construction project is in the pre-planning phase or involves a dispute giving rise to litigation, construction lawyers should be familiar with regulations regarding the use of UAVs and how data generated by them can be used by counsel to prove or disprove construction claims.

In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which required the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to establish a regulatory scheme to manage “civil small UAVs within the United States.” Accordingly, the FAA implemented Federal Regulation Part 107 providing that commercial drones must: (1) not weigh more than 55 lbs.; (2) be operated within the United States; (3) fly only in uncontrolled airspace; (4) fly under 400 feet; (5) fly during the day; (6) fly below 100 mph; (7) not fly over people; (8) not be operated from a moving vehicle; and (9) remain in the line of sight of the operator during operation. In Pennsylvania, a firm must also ensure it is not operating a UAV in a manner which would place another person in reasonable fear of bodily injury.

During construction, gathering visual data through UAVs reduces the amount of time necessary to gain an understanding of various on-site conditions. Additionally, UAVs remove the human error element that traditionally accompanies an on-site inspection, which can later lead to expensive inaccuracies. While these benefits may seem obvious, it’s also worth noting that researchers are developing newfound uses for UAVs on a regular basis. For instance, during reconstruction of the Fern Hollow Bridge, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are using UAVs equipped with photo and lidar imaging systems to capture data during construction. This data is then used to create 3-D digital models, which ultimately allows researchers and other firms to gain a deeper understanding of public infrastructure projects and develop best practices.

At the litigation stage, UAV footage and imaging preserves evidence and offers a detailed visual record that may be referred to as necessary. Often, construction projects are massive operations spanning over numerous acres, or even miles. Litigators can, and should, use UAV footage when available in an effort to efficiently highlight and distill the issues on any given project. Ultimately however, the visual data that depicts the continued progress and condition of a construction site reduces the risk of litigation and allows those involved in a project to better defend against any disputes initiated against them.

Therefore, so long as federal and state regulations are followed, commercial UAVs provide a safer and more efficient way of doing business. Whether attempting to maintain client expectations on a construction project or proving the cause of a defect at trial, UAVs can have an immediate impact on the ways in which firms transact business or resolve disputes.
Construction Law Jonathan A. Deasy