New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Look! Up in the Sky! It’s a Façade-Inspecting Drone!

Marianne Schaefer in Building Operations

New York City


Drones might help cut the cost of facade inspections (image courtesy of The Falcon Group)

The engineering firm The Falcon Group recently acquired Vantage Vertical, a drone aerial imaging service. Eric Koehler, the founder of Vantage and now vice president of Falcon Drone Services, is convinced that drones will save time and money for co-op and condo boards when they conduct facade inspections – and, possibly, an array of other projects.

“Drones are very effective for façade inspections,” says Koehler, a certificated pilot and certified flight instructor who has been flying airplanes for 30 years. “They’re also more efficient for roof, roadway and parking lot inspections. With thermal imaging we can detect leaks in roofs or insulation problems. We can easily go to parts of the building where access is difficult.”

The mandated inspection of a building façade is usually done from a building or a rooftop across the street, with cameras or binoculars, and it now includes balcony railings. “Now we can fly a drone within feet of the building,” says Koehler, “and cover a whole building with close up photographs in just a couple of hours.”

Others in the industry are cautiously optimistic about the potential of drones. “This could be a very useful tool,” says Stephen Varone, president of RAND Engineering & Architecture, “but 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.”

Koehler does not feel particularly daunted by current regulations. “Right now we are not allowed to fly drones on the island of Manhattan,” he says. “But we can use them in parts of all the other boroughs and we are using them in northern New Jersey. We are not allowed to fly drones within a five-mile radius of airports and never higher than 400 feet. We almost never need to get up any higher.”

In order to operate a drone, one needs a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has to be renewed every two years. Before August 29 of this year, only certain airplane pilots were allowed to professionally fly drones, and only with an exemption from the FAA.

The Falcon Group is convinced that drones, despite regulations, will be a lucrative business. “We are still doing regular inspections,” says Jessica Vail, the company’s director for Marketing & Business Development. “The drone is a new tool to get better pictures in better quality in shorter lead time. And it’s safer and much cheaper.” Without revealing specific figures, she says the cost of hiring a Falcon Group drone will vary depending on the size and nature of the job.

“Drones could enhance the visual (façade) inspection,” says RAND’s Varone, “but nothing will ever replace the hands-on inspection. You need a person with a hammer to check if something is hollow underneath.”

Koehler agrees: “Drones are an added tool, a better tool, and a cost-saving tool. We will still need hands-on, but now we know where to send the hands. We are not doing anything people cannot do. We are just doing it faster, cheaper, and safer.”

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