Friday, 27 October 2017

Drones and social housing savings.

I've just been directed to an excellent blog post entitled 'Superfly guy' from 2014 which strongly suggests that Drones will be the future of housing surveillance and surveying. From this, from the same author Tony Smith, recently tweets, asking ....

were going to save the world, what happened to them?

The tweet also contains a link to the original article, which is well worth a read here.

Now, I'm not sure how drones alone could save the social housing world especially with the current state of underfunded affairs. Nevertheless, the idea that they could, or should, save housing companies significant amounts of money and time by simplifying seemingly costly and time consuming survey work at height, is a realistic assumption and one that really needs to be addressed.

The article also mentions very briefly, one of the major obstacles that I believe is causing drone operators the biggest headaches in undertaking such work.

I've recently been approached by a housing association with a portfolio of over 300 properties. They need all of their estate's chimneys to be examined due to a recent failure. Without drones, this challenge could take years; to get a 'top down' view of the cement on top of the chimney stack, scaffolding would be necessary. For 300 houses, the cost would run into the 100's of thousands. Then there is the time to erect the scaffolding. The time required to call the surveyors out, to climb the scaffolding, capture the images required and subsequently the time to dismantle the scaffolding. Imagine that, times 300. It's insane with the technology we have, surely?

So the obvious answer, you'd assume would be to contact a drone operator. The first street I looked into was a relatively wide street with terraced houses down either side. 90% of the houses are owned by the company. Legislation dictates that the safe take off for a drone needs to be 30 metres clear of people or other property that's not 'under the control' of the PIC (Pilot in Command). With the property being owned by the housing association, a safe take off point was easily identifiable by looking on the plan, at one of the largest back gardens. Googles 'measure distance' tool is a handy and accurate enough mechanism for covering a site survey. This particular site was 30m clear of other peoples property. So far, so good.

However, several of the houses on this one street weren't owned by the housing association. Also, google street view showed that the road had a number of privately owned cars parked on either side of the road. Now here's were the legislation becomes prohibitive. When the drone is operating, legislation again dictates that it should be 50 metres clear of 'people or property'.

To tick all of these boxes. Either the housing association, or the PIC would need to remove all of the cars from the road and the owners of the privately owned houses would need to be 'under the control' of the Pilot in Command. The legislation also warns,

So woe betide any pilot who dares fly directly over someone else's car, but as the properties would be under the control of the pilot (via the housing association) that would be ok.

But even taking into account the altitude of the drone, getting 50 metres away from the cars parked by the side of the road is nigh on impossible (assuming you want to capture a decent image of the terraced houses chimneys). So, here's the sticking point for lots of operators.

  • Do you leave the permissions aspect to the housing company having clearly stating what work you expect them to do to notify residents?
  • Do you charge for your time, contact the council, close the road, clear the cars out, set the date, and then find out on that particular day, the wind is higher than your operations manual states you can fly (or simply too windy for you to risk it, as 100% control and low wind is required for close up inspection work), or ..... worse still, it's raining? 
  • Do you assume complete responsibility (I have complete faith in my ability to pilot a drone around a row of houses without incident) and just get the job done, grumbling that the legislation is prohibitive and that certain aspects of it make it clear that the risk is yours so it's 'ok'ish? 

To be honest the CAA guidelines which drone operators are required to adhere to is poorly worded frequently contradictory and at times utterly baffling. See articles such as this one. I spoke to a NQE trainer about this particular job, and he advised me that written consent to fly wouldn't need to be obtained from other home owners, but they would need to be 'under my control' which is fine. I can work around that. But any pilot with any apprehensions or anxieties would be understandably reluctant to carry out the work full stop.

Until we agree that the risk is with the Pilot, that the skills of the pilot have been assessed as safe (as they have) and we honour pilots with more authority and autonomy to make their own decisions on what constitutes a safe flight. I fear the housing industry will see a very slow uptake of services offered to them or simply a reluctance to take work on. When busy bodies know about the 30 metre - 50 metre guidelines it takes a brave pilot indeed to fly within an 'urban area'. It's simply impractical to vacate a street of vehicles at short notice (as is often needed when the work relies on the weather).

It's a veritable omnishambles of a situation and one which needs a common sense approach to start to see an uplift in this sort of time and cost saving work. As a country we're fantastic at keeping people safe, but we're morons when it comes to making things easy for ourselves.

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