EHS Management

Drones Take Flight—Can They Make Your Workplace Safer?

In September 2015, a New York City high school science teacher was standing outside Louis Armstrong Stadium while two female tennis players battled it out on the U.S. Open court. He was piloting a drone—a small remote-controlled quadcopter—over the stadium, attempting to get video footage of the Unisphere, when the drone crashed into an empty seating area inside the stadium. The pilot was arrested and sentenced to 5 days’ community service.

The pilot of the New York City drone was arrested because it’s illegal to operate a drone within 5 miles of an airport. After all, a drone has the potential to cause a lot of damage to a commercial airliner, and LaGuardia International Airport is just 4 miles from the stadium. Because of the risk to manned aircraft and for other reasons, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a new rule in June covering “small unmanned aircraft” (UA).

Drones at Work

Concerns about the potential hazards of drones have increased as the price of the devices has come down, especially when they have inadvertently disrupted events like the U.S. Open or when they have been used for less-than-innocent purposes. In one incident, two men were arrested outside a Maryland prison with a drone in their car; police believe they intended to use the drone to smuggle guns, drugs, and pornography into the prison. In addition to possibly endangering air traffic, drones have the potential to create many smaller-scale hazards (What if the drone had struck spectators at the U.S. Open? What if it had carried a bomb?) and to infringe on personal privacy.

But drones are not just recreational devices; they have many workplace applications. Online retailer, Inc., has famously advertised its intention to use drones to launch a same-day delivery service. Less visible business applications include aerial photography, which is useful for everyone from film and television producers to realtors; the slightly more intricate business of geomatic surveying; and agricultural monitoring. Some of drones’ applications are more than just handy—they’re already saving lives.

Drones for Safety

Drones can go into places where people cannot, capture footage that would otherwise require a crane, and can save lives. Consider these current and proposed uses of drones to save lives or protect workers:

  • The communication tower industry increasingly uses drones to inspect towers and antennas—work that was once done by humans that required climbing thousands of feet in the air, putting life and limb at risk to ensure that our text messages and phone calls go through smoothly.
  • In the oil and gas industry, drones can inspect flare stack heads and detect and locate leaks, eliminating the need for workers to shut down operations and climb stacks.
  • The military and border patrol use drones to increase their situational awareness.
  • First responders and wildland firefighters use drones to collect information from wildfires, hazardous materials incidents, or other disasters from miles away and transmit it to incident command to assist in response planning.
  • An engineering and construction firm in the United Kingdom has begun using drones to perform roadway inspections, reducing the need for workers to walk along the roadside and in the median.
  • Search-and-rescue teams use drones to conduct quicker, more thorough searches in difficult-to-reach areas, enabling them to find small plane crashes and rescue avalanche victims more effectively.
  • Drones could be used to identify problems in enclosed areas—for example, sewers—before workers are sent into a potentially hazardous situation.
  • Drones could eventually be designed to perform the same work that robots currently do, but at elevation (e.g., welding, drilling), reducing the need to expose workers to fall hazards.

But can the risks created by drones be balanced against their usefulness? That’s the partial purpose of the new FAA rule—we’ll look at the requirements of that rule tomorrow.