Go Your Drone Way

November 4, 2021 • John Salustri

Drones are making inroads in virtually every walk of life. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which addresses drones by their formal name: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)—of the more than 865,000 registered, 342,000-plus are in use for commercial operations, including for commercial real estate.

General Motors (GM) is one big proponent of the technology, especially in its industrial facilities, and two facilities managers for GM advocate their use for the efficiency, cost-effectiveness and, most important, the human safety factor they bring. Those two facilities managers, Joshua Cummings and Charles Kuhn, said as much during their education session at the 2021 BOMA International Conference & Expo held in Boston in early October.

As Cummings and Kuhn shared, there is an impressive laundry list of issues drones can solve for. Enhanced by thermal cameras, drones can detect everything from weaknesses in smokestacks and underground steam pipes to pinpointing the location of nests of geese on the property. In fact, the presenters reported they were able to facilitate the safe relocation of more than 50 birds from one of their locations thanks to this technology. Even without thermal imaging, the facilities managers also reported using drones for time lapse videos of ongoing projects and 3D modeling in order “to generate a more realistic representation of a project so we can show what’s being done in a more effective way.”

Human safety, of course, is a prime issue, and as Kuhn and Cummings pointed out, in such procedures as the above-mentioned thermal inspection of a smokestack or in detecting leakages in heavy chemical applications, the drones prove their worth, going where humans might understandably fear to tread . . . or climb.

The safety factor is an incalculable part of the value equation. More measurable is the savings that can be had through increased energy efficiency, as in the steampipe case study, as well as in time. Kuhn pointed to a parking lot study for which they used drones to scan both used and unused parking spaces. What would have taken facilities team members days to do by hand was accomplished with a flyover “in five minutes.”

Such applications also help corporate users reallocate and maximize their team deployment and re-evaluate their use of outside consultants for work that can now be accomplished with in-house personnel. In fact, the managers stated that, in a three-year time span with more than 36 “missions,” the corporation saved more than $50,000 performing projects in house vs. contracting out.

But to maximize those savings, both facilities managers advocated hiring people who are dedicated to the technology, especially in these early days of its advancement, with the rapidly evolving changes to both the technology and to FAA regulations. This includes licensed drone pilots at the helm (to mix metaphors). But the all-in cost is relatively low for the savings it will produce. They reported that the drone and the FAA training will run a corporation roughly $10,000—and that includes the thermal camera.

As to those FAA restrictions, in what is likely to be a major boost for use by building management, the FAA recently has begun to approve certain companies to sell autonomous drones. This opens the door to using a drone without the current restrictions of it needing to remain within the pilot’s line of sight. The implications for savings on travel time and expense are clear. The technology might still be new and evolving, but the value of drones to commercial real estate, and business in general, boils down to an old adage. As Cummings concluded: “Time is money.”


John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt.com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.