The first in a series on new technology addresses the legal issues of drone use in construction

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The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – aka drones – has grown rapidly in the industry in recent years. Some 34% of decision makers in construction businesses said drone technology is either already in use in their industry or will be in the future, in response to a survey carried out by YouGov on behalf of Charles Russell Speechlys. Here, we consider the legal issues that arise.

What are drones used for? 

There are a number of potential uses for drones on construction sites, including:

  • Building surveys Performing a building survey using a drone can save time and money. 3D images can be produced and processed more efficiently using drone technology.
  • Health and safety Site plans can be quickly and efficiently updated to show where different works are taking place, making it much easier to convey this information on a regular basis to site operatives.
  • Progress reports These reports are often prepared monthly to record site progress against the project programme and usually involve the surveyor or contract administrator taking multiple photographs of different parts of the site. Using a drone regularly can provide a faster and more effective way of recording project progress. The drone can also fly the same path multiple times a day to create time-lapse images for comparative analysis. 
  • Building information modelling (BIM) Drones can quickly collect high-resolution images to input into PC or cloud-based photogrammetry systems to produce 3D maps and point clouds. The aerial perspective and digital data provides greater consistency and data density for use in BIM.

The benefits of using drones include relatively easy access to large or difficult sites and tall or complex structures, low set-up costs when compared with the traditional use of cherry pickers or scaffolding to access difficult areas, and the ability to operate remotely increasing safety on site. There are of course also risks with using drones, as shown by recent reports of near misses with aircraft.

Rules and regulations

There are a number of legal issues potentially relevant to the use of drones, including:

  • Data protection Under data protection law, individuals must be informed of how their personal data is being processed. There is a risk of breaching an individual’s rights to privacy over their personal data where a drone is flying overhead taking images. While taking images of the site, images of individuals may also be captured unintentionally. These images could be of employees, subcontractors or even members of the public. Informing employees and subcontractors that drones are in use on the site is a straightforward matter. But how are individuals unconnected with the building site to be informed? The Information Commissioner’s Office of the UK Data Protection Authority has suggested that UAV operators should wear highly visible clothing to identify themselves to passing members of the public, and/or that signs should be placed in the vicinity of the site which states clearly that a UAV is flying overhead. 
  • Permission for drone use A drone operator must request “permission for commercial operation” from the Civil Aviation Authority if it plans to fly the aircraft on a commercial basis (that is, conducting commercial operations). It must also do so if it intends to fly within 150m of a congested area or within 50m of people or properties that are not under its control.
  • Trespass and nuisance The law has yet to be tested in this area. While flying over another property at height may not constitute a trespass, UAV operators should ensure that the drone is not flying over another’s property on multiple occasions or hovering in one place and taking multiple pictures. This may not only contravene privacy laws but also infringe on property rights. 

What’s next?

In July 2017, the government announced plans to introduce new regulations aimed at improving safety and security surrounding drone use.  According to the new regulations, drones weighing more than 250g will have to be registered and users will be made to take a safety awareness test to demonstrate an understanding of safety, security and privacy laws.

The UK government has confirmed its commitment to developing drone technology, including bringing forward its plans to expand the use of “geo fencing” in the UK. This technology can be built into drones to stop them entering specific zones, which could address the yet-untested laws of drones and trespass. 

It is clear that the use of drones will continue to increase in the construction industry. There are significant cost, time and safety benefits in using this technology, and it will be interesting to see how the use of drones and the law surrounding them will develop in the future.