Small rotor-equipped robots that can be operated from the ground to fly or hover in the sky are commonly called drones. They are correctly referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). When a UAV is paired with a remote control and two-way communication, the entire package is referred to as an unmanned aerial system (UAS).

Lightweight and highly maneuverable, UAVs can be operated either via remote control or smartphone. Many can fly for almost an hour on a single charge.

Thousands of UAVs were sold over the year-end holidays. It is expected that 1.9 million more drones will be sold in the U.S. this year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Hobbyists and other recreational users purchase the great majority of drones. Most of these units cost in the $50 to $300 range. But, as industries realize their potential, more sophisticated and expensive systems are being used for commercial purposes. These high-tech robots can shoot professional-quality, high-definition photographs and video, which operators on the ground can see and download immediately.

UAVs offer many great labor- and time-saving opportunities for a wide range of professionals, including landscape contractors, golf course superintendents, sports field managers, irrigation specialists and arborists. But, presently, the number of landscape companies using UAVs appears to be small. Even so, based on the growing adoption in other industries—real estate, agriculture, professional photography, to name a few—it seems inevitable that landscape, irrigation and tree care professionals will embrace their use as well. In fact, a few already have.

Landscape pros using drones

In late 2014, Green Scene Landscaping & Pools, a Los Angeles-based design and construction firm specializing in high-end landscapes, announced in a press release that it had begun using a quad-rotor UAV equipped with a high-resolution camera to capture aerial landscape images.

“Our designs are typically conceived from an overhead perspective, but in the past we were rarely able to see the finished product from the air,” says Scott Cohen, owner, Green Scene Landscaping & Pools. “The drone now enables us, and our clients, to take in the environment from above. It’s a game changer in terms of project presentation and promotion. It’s a tool that allows us to see the entire setting in context within a continuous moving image.”

Indeed, videography for promotional purposes seems to be the fastest-growing use for small unmanned aircraft in the landscape industry. Small landscape, tree care or irrigation businesses typically hire an FAA-certified company specializing in professional aerial photography on a project-by-project basis. There are good reasons for doing so, liability being a big one since these professionals typically have property and casualty insurance.

Know Before You Fly

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are not failure-proof. Mishaps happen, and even a small UAV being operated in an unsafe manner or falling from the sky and crashing onto a property or, worse, a person, can create a serious problem.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) offers these guidelines for operating drones:

  • Take a lesson before you fly.
  • Inspect your aircraft before you fly.
  • Fly your unmanned aircraft below 400 feet.
  • Fly with local clubs.
  • Don’t fly your unmanned aircraft beyond your line of sight.
  • Don’t fly your aircraft near airports or any manned aircraft.
  • Don’t fly near people or stadiums.
  • Don’t be careless or reckless. You could be fined if you endanger people or other aircraft.
  • Don’t fly anything that weighs more than 55 pounds.
  • Don’t fly for payment or commercial purposes unless specifically authorized by the FAA.

Watch a video of what to know before you fly a UAV.

Drone concerns mount

Apart from privacy concerns by many Americans, the misuse of UAVs by some operators raises serious safety issues, especially regarding possible in-air collisions with manned aircrafts. The FAA has issued regulations for their commercial use. Also, the insurance industry is trying to get a handle on how to assess the risk of their use.

Even so, UAVs are here to stay, and their use both by hobbyists and commercial users is on the verge of exploding. Some users say UAVs can be fun to operate, and they reach places and see things that people on the ground can’t. From a commercial standpoint, they can provide a bird’s-eye view of work in progress; enhance site surveying and modeling; assess the safety and security of job sites; and check the effectiveness of irrigation and other cultural practices.

Consider the time a golf course superintendent can save by flying a UAV over his 18-hole course to check its playing condition each morning. Using a UAV to survey the entire course may take perhaps 20 minutes, rather than the superintendent having to drive a utility vehicle or golf cart from green to green. The UAV in the sky delivers an aerial view of his course from 100 feet to 200 feet in the air, immediately telling the turf pro about spray coverage, any pest problems and his crew’s maintenance practices.

So far, landscape business owners are using the images and videos captured by drones to show off their handiwork.

PHOTO: GREENSCENELANDSCAPE.COM

Drones come with rules

Since Dec. 21, anyone who owns a small unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 pounds but less than 55 pounds must register it with the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System before flying it outdoors. People who do not register their UAVs could face civil and criminal penalties. During the registration process, each owner must provide his or her name, home address and email address. When registration is complete, the Web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership including a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.

So far, the number of hobbyists operating drones exceeds the number of commercial users. In addition, the FAA regulations covering both groups of users are different. Commercial users are held to much stricter laws. Companies that want to use a UAV for commercial purposes must choose one of two options to do so legally. They can obtain a 333 exemption from the FAA, or they have to hire someone who has a 333 exemption. This is usually a company specializing in professional photography. The FAA defines commercial use of drones broadly. If you put a UAV into the sky for any purpose with a commercial bent – say, assessing the irrigation pattern on a sports field or, in the case of a design/build company, making a nice marketing presentation – you could find yourself afoul of FAA regulations and subject to a steep fine.

While the FAA struggles to get a handle on the fast-growing UAV industry—sales are predicted to reach $27 billion by 2021—it recognizes the incredible potential they offer to many industries. The agency doesn’t want to stunt the growth and use of these small unmanned aircraft by being too heavy-handed, but it must also protect citizens’ privacy and safety.

Read more: How to Become Certified to Operate a Drone