NYC Dept. of Buildings studies facade inspections by drones

drone facade inspection

New York City’s Department of Buildings has released a study on the potential use of drones for structural and facade inspections, judging the prospect promising yet not ready for deployment just yet.

The Department of Buildings (DOB) investigated not only the practical and data advantages drone technologies can contribute to the NYC’s Facade Inspection & Safety Program, but also the legal feasibility of deploying UAVs in the city. Its findings were something of a mixed bag, often highlighting the advantages of the approach while ultimately adopting a wait-and-see position as examinations continue – and laws restricting drone flights evolve.

“It is imperative that we continue to embrace the latest technologies and innovations in support of our mission to protect our fellow New Yorkers,” said Commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca of the “Using Drones to Conduct Facade Inspections” survey. “Our report is the product of intensive research by DOB experts, and finds that when combined with traditional hands-on examinations, the effective use of drones could potentially result in more comprehensive building inspections, resulting in reduced inefficiencies and a safer New York City.”

In some places, the DOB’s report nods to the circular manner in which NYC’s strict drone laws prohibit most drone fights, which in turn severely limits real-life UAV use the authors might have otherwise drawn from. Though Federal Aviation Administration rules nominally apply, local city codes effectively ban leisure or commercial UAV operation in the five boroughs. Easing of those restrictions would require the City Council to amend those tight municipal codes. 

Yet in the wake of the 2019 death of an architect killed by debris falling from a West 47th Street building, the city passed the 2020 Local Law 102 requiring the DOB to examine the potential of drones in facade inspections. Given that, there may be reason to believe regulations could eventually be loosened for certain business and administration drone uses if airborne technology justifies it. That’s the eventuality the report examines.

In doing so, it notes the ways UAVs can aid human inspectors, but also points out how manual scrutiny remains the gold standard – for now, anyway. The main criticism is that while drones can quickly and easily access places where façade deterioration has taken place, their sensors aren’t yet sophisticated enough to replace the visual evidence human inspector gather themselves.

“The most common output format from drones is two-dimensional images, specifically photographs,” the report noted. “High resolution images can still mask the extent of defects by flattening the viewpoint, and even videos may miss critical angles that an inspector may need to determine whether there is a significant defect and its extent or underlying cause.” 

It’s worth noting that while the report referred to drone use with LiDAR, thermal-imaging devices, and laser-scanning sensors aboard for inspection purposes, those were not evaluated in qualitative terms.

In the end, the report found the potential contributions of drones promising, but recommended further examination and testing before future deployment – all of which would largely require city code revisions anyway. 

When that happens, however, the DOB said there could be quick economies gained by using drone tech. By deploying the craft for initial façade examinations, experts may be able to more effectively differentiate areas possibly needing repair or maintenance from those in solid shape. That would allow them to limit installation of scaffolding and sidewalk protection only in places where it’s needed, which could mean big savings and freer flows of pedestrians and traffic around affected buildings.

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