In recent years, the engineering and construction industries has started to see progress on the expanded use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for commercial applications. On June 21, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved expanded regulations on permissible UAV altitudes to include objects higher than 400 feet, as long as the operator remains within 400 feet of the object. Along with these altitude limits, the FAA has also defined UAV speed limits to no more than 100 mph.

On Thursday, June 29, the new set of regulations were finally published in the Federal Register and will take effect on August 29, 60 days after the rule was officially published.

Burns & McDonnell has been operating UAVs for nearly two years now under the special Section 333 exemption for such things as gas pipelines, power lines and transmission towers, vegetation, and wildlife inspections. The recently published rules are similar to many of the restrictions we’ve previously operated under, but with this step Burns & McDonnell will be able to apply for nighttime and beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) operation waivers.

The most notable regulatory changes brought on by this ruling are the modifications made to the pilot certification requirements, the ability to hand-off operational controls, and the removal of the observer requirement. Currently, Burns & McDonnell has to maintain visual contact with the ten UAVs we operate. Now that the new rules are enacted and BVLOS waivers are available, Burns & McDonnell will be able to greatly expand safely operating our UAVs into significantly more remote areas while also operating fewer flights from greater distances. Traditionally many of these operations have been difficult, and often dangerous, for manned aircrafts and ground-based inspectors. Burns & McDonnell is optimistic that the FAA’s ruling is a sign that the agency is embracing the idea of using UAVs as a productive part of the national airspace for commercial use.

Burns & McDonnell is proud to have been one of the first engineering and construction firms to use UAVs for survey and inspection work, especially since so many of our projects are in remote, mountainous and forested areas. We’ve been able to use the aerial photographs taken by UAVs to create 3-D point clouds and establish data sets that can be translated into 3-D models back on the ground. The cost savings, safety advantages and engineering design benefits are clear to our clients and with the clarification of the BVLOS rule, Burns & McDonnell looks forward to a future where the use of UAVs is a routine part of every project.

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As the department manager for geospatial services at Burns & McDonnell, Steve Santovasi brings more than 25 years of experience in geospatial solutions specializing in geographic information systems, mobile mapping, Web mapping, high-accuracy GPS locational services, 3-D drone mapping and UAV solutions.