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Drones Could Revolutionize Building Maintenance and Repair

Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on July 4, 2018

New York City

July 4, 2018

It was one of those maddening leaks. Water kept penetrating a top-floor apartment in a 34-story building. It appeared the water was coming through the cornice that adorned the top of the building’s facade, then somehow working its way through the building envelope and into the apartment. Scaffolding was put up twice, but workers could not determine the source of the leak. Then Ira Meister, president of Matthew Adam Properties, which manages the building, had an idea. 

“We sent a drone up and sent it around to the side of the building,” Meister says. “We saw old water stains, at about the same height as the leak inside the apartment. We did a test on the side parapet wall and discovered a leak there. The repair cost less than the cost of putting up a scaffold.” 

Meister, understandably, is excited by the cost-saving potential of drones, formally known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Managers at Matthew Adam Properties started using a DJI Mavic drone about a year ago, Meister says, as a way of supplementing the search for leaks, facade decay, or rules violations, as well as checking the quality of a contractor’s work – and various other things that may not be visible to the naked eye, or even through binoculars. For instance, at a co-op that charges a fee for air conditioners, a drone ascertained that several shareholders were using concealed air-conditioning units without having paid the fees. Examination by a drone is not a legal substitute for an architect’s or engineer’s examination mandated by the Facade Inspection & Safety Program, commonly known as Local Law 11.

“But I think it should be used for facade inspections,” Meister says. “It can go over every inch of the building. Eventually, engineers will probably be able to use drones for Local Law 11 inspections.”

Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit the flying of drones more than 400 feet above the ground or within a five-mile radius of an airport, which makes them illegal or useless for many buildings in Manhattan.

Meister stresses that his managers do not use the company’s drone indiscriminately. “We do not go into restricted airspace,” he says. “We don’t go touring. We restrict its use to the immediate surroundings of our buildings.” The drone, he adds, has a function to alert the user if it has entered restricted airspace. 

Others in the industry are cautiously optimistic about the potential of drones. “This could be a very useful tool,” Stephen Varone, president of RAND Engineering & Architecture, tells Habitat. “I do wonder if it might not be hampered by too many hold-ups and restrictions in New York City. But I most certainly do understand the usefulness.”

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