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BY tom hartland 

It’s still early days for drones in housing associations, but with one test under our belt we've got a lot to shout about. Let's take it from the top...

It started promisingly. The lab had a brand new drone (DJI Phantom) and the team had weeded out problems with a discharging battery, the GPS locating feature and delicate landing procedures. Following a few weekends of flight practice and hurrying to the local parks at lunchtimes, my drone control was coming along nicely, Amy could hold her own and Vicky had successfully outmaneuvered an Alsatian. Happy with its capabilities we started looking for opportunities within the business – and quickly arranged a fly-by for an enthusiastic portfolio team which would lead to our first test.

Then we hit a wall, or more a net, of red tape and governing policy. Flying in a built up area was one thing, but the civil aviation authority (CAA) tightly regulates flights involving ‘surveillance or data acquisition’ – something our proposed roof survey in Cheltenham would undoubtedly need. We were stumped. Gaining CAA flight approval required the pilot to be officially trained and certified, which came with its own complications of time, money and a lot of effort. We needed to get the Cheltenham property surveyed sooner rather than later, or risk losing all the interest we’d drummed up around the possibilities of drone technology. Various news articles had already made a lot of people sceptical.

I’d been down to the launch event held by local video producers’ Stone’s throw media. Their drone dwarfed our own 10:1, could fly stably in higher winds and had an independently controlled camera mount. It was an impressively professional set up, beyond what we could have achieved on our own. We got in touch with the boys soon after to explore working together on this roof survey. Taking into consideration the legal complexities and risk, opting to work with a qualified drone expert was the best way forwards.

Long story short - drone companies are still finding their feet. Stones’ throw had to do essential works, a different pilot had broken his hand (we didn’t ask…) and another crashed his drone the day before our scheduled survey. Amy eventually wrangled up a successful date and, chaperoned by Vicky and Matt, headed down to Cheltenham to meet the outfit on the day of the flight. By all accounts everyone returned happy.

Our pilots used this high spec home-built drone to capture images and video.   

The survey had received an active interest from Bromford customers and members of the public alike. We'd let residents know of our intention to use a drone for roof surveying in advance, but didn’t expect them to wait around for a closer look! A number remarked how much better it was than having scaffolding erected and some stayed to watch the live stream of their rooftop from a cab on the ground – the pilot had brought along an oculus rift headset for those with a sturdy stomach to get an eagle eyed view. 

The true success of this test would be measured in a couple of days, when the pilots would send through the images and flight video. We already knew we’d significantly reduced the disruption to our customers compared to intrusive scaffolding put up over a number of days or weeks. We already knew we’d reduced the risk of men working at height and saved a considerable amount of money (regency stock is four stories worth of scaffolding...) for the business. But this would be worth nothing at all if the images were rubbish and we needed scaffolding to take a closer look.

A new angle on roof surveying. The drone took pictures from all angles and view-points to give us a clearer impression of the roofs condition. 

The images arrived and exceeded expectations. The professional camera allowed us to digitally zoom images nearly to the point of reading the brand name off discarded cigarette butts, let alone examine the integrity of our roof tiles, coping stones and flashings. Now the portfolio team have the insight the life-cycle plan these customers homes with greater accuracy and certainty and can also examine the quality of repairs previously carried out. The team didn’t spot anything that required immediate restorative action – so the immediate cost, time and risk savings hold up.

Matt giving the lab team a quickfire schooling in roof inspection terminology. Image courtesy of @PaulBromford

This technology will never replace being able to get up there to touch and feel the roof, we accept that, but it’s a pretty close second thanks to the clarity of the images.  There’s also the chance you might need to put up scaffolding regardless, especially if investigating a specific issue, so it’s knowing when to use a drone that is important (plus a pinch of good general maintenance).

Looking at our measurement criteria (you can find our test plan here) we can happily notch this up as a pass, but we’re going to keep testing the technology where common sense allows us - maybe in some circumstances we could even replace them with a barge pole, gaffer tape and a go-pro. We're working with the portfolio team again with another drone test again shortly. 

Note: You can read more about Vicky’s experience on the day and her top tips here