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Eyes in the skies keep workers safe on the ground

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The risks posed by drones have spurred warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration, but safety professionals say the unmanned aerial systems' ability to conduct industrial inspections can help avoid exposing workers to danger.

The FAA, which issued a special alert last year after several incidents in which drones forced aircraft fighting wildfires in the U.S. West to halt their efforts along with issuing rules covering the use of certain drones, forecast in March that the commercial drone fleet would grow to 540,000 craft by 2020, with industrial inspections being the largest market for the unmanned aircraft.

Using drones to inspect construction, tall telecommunications equipment and remote, hard-to-reach areas could reduce falls that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said are the No. 1 cause of death in the construction industry and the No. 3 cause of death in all industries.

“Anytime you have a worker that does not have to climb to high levels, it provides an improvement in workplace safety for those workers,” said Desiree Tolbert-Render, assistant vice president of national technical compliance at Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc. in Orlando, Florida.

She said drones are improving safety on construction sites by, among other things, checking to ensure scaffolding is set up properly or that workers are using their fall protection equipment.

“Drones can easily fly over infrastructure and send back imagery showing the condition of electric lines and equipment to employees on the ground. This makes the entire inspection process safer and more efficient,” said Eric Back, San Francisco-based director of compliance and risk management at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

PG&E, which received FAA approval last year to use drones to assist inspections of the company's electric and gas infrastructure, said the drone inspections limit the times employees have to climb high towers or navigate steep terrain.

A California company that has an FAA exemption to use drones to capture aerial imagery and provide data analysis to its customers said its primary customers currently are roofers and insurers, but Dave Tobias, BetterView Marketplace Inc.'s Burlingame, California-based co-founder and chief operating officer, said it expects other industries to also use its services.

Gustavo B. Guerrero, a BetterView client and president of Oakland, California-based Ben's Roofing Inc., said the drone aerial photography not only allows the company to show customers how projects are progressing, it also allows for checking workers to make sure roofs are installed properly and safely.

“To send somebody up on the roof to check on the workers is a risk in itself, and the drones can easily do that job,” Mr. Tobias said.

Using drones for inspections is occurring within the rapidly growing cell tower and power industries, where the the telecommunication structures that can be as tall as 2,000 feet are required by the Federal Communications Commission to be inspected on a regular basis, said Bryan C. Sanders, Portland, Oregon-based vice president and client relations director at Homeland Surveillance & Electronics L.L.C.

“These towers are often located in very challenging-to-reach areas like on the side of a mountain where there are windy conditions — you also have a lot of signal strength up there ... drones can limit workers having to make the dangerous ascent and descent of the equipment that needs regular inspections,” he said.

ProSight Specialty Insurance Group Inc., which offers drone insurance, sees industries using drones in innovative ways in the future.

“For anything a person can do, there is someone trying to find out if it can be done easier with a drone,” said Mike Kelly, ProSight's Glendale, California-based media risk control manager.

However, Mr. Kelly said, even businesses that have an FAA 333 exemption that allows them to operate drones should be aware that there may be limits on their activities.

“There is an enormous amount of misunderstanding about the FAA 333 exemption and its restrictions,” Mr. Kelly said. “We have people who have an exemption from the FAA and are approved for data collection, but they are not looking at what is not approved. If a client wants to use a drone to perform any task, they need to make sure their exemption does not restrict them from it.”

Sedgwick's Ms. Tolbert-Render said future drone usage in other industries may bring safety benefits as well.

Citing transportation incidents, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics said was the No. 1 fatal occupational injury contributor in 2014, she said “the use of drones for delivery seems to have worker safety implications.”

Although not currently permitted by FAA rules, delivering packages by drones could be another way to avoid transportation worker injuries and even deaths, she said.