Jake Williams, managing home inspector for Inspect-All Services, is waiting patiently for a call from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Inspect-All filed a petition for a Section 333 exemption about four months ago, and Williams is confident that once the company has been granted the exemption, they will have a leg up on competitors throughout greater Atlanta. That’s because drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) hold great promise in improving inspection efficiency, reducing liability concerns and helping customers see problems in difficult-to-access areas.
“We’ve been testing UAVs through inspections of the homes of friends and family members,” says Williams, explaining that the Inspect-All team isn’t willing to risk the hefty fine they’d be assessed if they were caught using the technology for commercial use prior to FAA clearance. “We’ve found damaged dormers, fascia pushing through shingles and a variety of other roof issues that could be inviting rodents and other wildlife into the home. Some of these are issues we would have likely found had we climbed up onto the roof and inspected it, but other issues, in hard-to-reach places, might have been missed.”
PROMISING APPLICATIONS. Since drones are so new to pest management and very few are tailored to pest management needs, there’s no handbook of applications or training methods. So early adopters are taking UAVs out for a spin and coming up with their own ideas for use.
One drone designed specifically for bird control is the ProHawk UAV by Bird-X. It looks and sounds like a predator bird and can be programmed to regularly fly through problem areas. While ProHawk is a new product, John Livingston of Varment Guard, Columbus, Ohio, has been scaring geese and sea gulls away with small remote-controlled planes for several years.
“I’ve always been a hobbyist, and it occurred to me that if we were to fly a plane into the areas where birds are a problem, we could probably scare them away,” he said. “It worked, so we also had a plane retooled and painted to resemble a dog. With the wings removed, and wheels and pontoons added to the base, it became a great tool for chasing geese on land and water.”
In the past year, Livingston has graduated to “tinkering” with drones, and has found they are ideal for not only bird management, but for wildlife and other pest inspections. In fact, inspection capabilities seem to be the main draw to UAV technology for PMPs, at least for now.
“Drones can save us a lot of time and labor in evaluating building exteriors; they can also streamline our quotation process,” says Bill Kirchner of Cleveland Chemical Pest Control. “The videos and photographs UAV cameras take give us a good look at areas we would have otherwise had to use a lift or a ladder to access. So we can get the job done faster and keep our technicians safer by keeping them at ground level.”
Adds Williams, “In situations where you’re dealing with a two- or three-story building, you can damage the roof — or, more often, customers may think that you’ve damaged their roof — by climbing it. Using drones for the inspection will take that potential issue out of the equation.”
Williams also tried using drone technology as follow-up to infrared (IR) camera results. Specific to one situation, his IR camera detected an area of high moisture. When he zoomed in with the drone’s camera, he discovered rusted, corroded flashing underneath the roofing material.
“The picture is extremely clear,” he says. “I can zoom in on the roof and inspect it like I’m walking it — only I’m actually looking at it from the ground, on my laptop or tablet. The images look like they’re two feet in front of my face.”
UAVs also facilitate transparent communication between you and your customers. You can send them a link to the video or photos so that they don’t have to take your word for the damage report. “The video record of your survey shows your customer exactly what’s happening on the property,” says Livingston. “If there was one hole on your last visit and two on this visit, then the customer understands why your technicians need to do squirrel control. The video confirms your recommendations.”
HOW TO BUY AND FLY. What do you look for in a drone? Again, since they don’t come in industry-specific models, you have to shop for the features that you think will be important to you. The PMPs we interviewed agreed that a good GPS (global positioning system) is important. Stability, ease of use and the UAV’s learning curve are three other important considerations.
Livingston recommends trying a variety of models ranging from cheap to expensive. “My best advice is to go with a drone that’s big and heavy, with a stable camera. Smaller, lighter models don’t hold up to the wind. You need to be able to have great control as you move the camera and the drone itself.”
Kirchner looks for high-resolution image capabilities as well. “You want to make sure the camera has a high enough resolution that the photos show great detail,” he says, “but also keep in mind that the higher the resolution, the more of a memory hog it’s going to be because the video file size will be larger.”
Williams suggests looking for a UAV that’s easy to fly. He did a lot of research before selecting a DJI Phantom 3 model. “Across the board, this drone was the easiest to fly. If it loses connection, you can hit the home button and it flies back to you. When you set it for a specific distance from the roof — say 5 feet — it flies over the roof at precisely that distance. You can also mark the middle of a building and then endpoints, and the drone will circle the building on its own so you can concentrate on taking shots with the camera.”
Was it as easy to fly as he imagined? “I’m not going to lie: The first time I used it, I clipped a gutter,” Williams confesses. “But it was my own fault. I had the altitude set at zero. It was just doing what I told it to do.” (The newest Phantom release, Phantom 4, includes collision protection, Williams says. Isn’t that always the way?)
WHAT’S NEXT FOR DRONES? Livingston would like to see them equipped to deliver an application of pesticide. “As the technology progresses, I can imagine drones that could dust yellow-jacket holes three stories up,” he says. “The possibilities are really endless. We’ll just have to see what manufacturers come up with.”
The author is a frequent PCT contributor and can be contacted at email@example.com.