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  • Paul F. P. Pogue

Drones Give Home Inspectors Bird's-eye View

Drones make checking hard-to-reach places, such as steep roofs, much easier for home inspectors and insurance agents.

With new rules for drone piloting making headlines and companies that sell goods online musing about the possibility of drone-based delivery, the tiny, unmanned aerial vehicles seem to be gaining traction that goes beyond recreational use.

Although hordes of drones buzzing by to deliver consumer goods to your doorstep may be years away, home inspectors use them now to get aerial photos and video of hard-to-reach places, delivering better results and saving clients money in the process.

Glenn Fricke, owner of DG Construction and Inspections in St. Petersburg, Florida, says he first investigated using drones in 2012. He says he was one of the earliest to adopt the technology and wrote extensively on it for the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors.

“I was kind of ridiculed at the time, but as technology has advanced and prices have come down, more people are seeing the value in it,” he says.

With a camera-equipped drone, Fricke takes high-quality images of rooftops and other hard-to-reach places that previously required either a ladder or lift to access – if he could get there at all. The drone helps him complete the job much more effectively and faster.

He says current technology allows for smooth piloting, and operators can see images and video in real time via tablets or smartphoness mounted on the remote control unit. He deploys the drone a few times a month on average, he says, and doesn’t charge extra for its use.

“It’s part of our standard inspection package,” he says. “You don’t want to look a client in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I can’t evaluate your roof.’”

This aerial photo shows the image produced by a drone after flying over a hard-to-reach rooftop.

Glenford Blanc, owner of Pro-Spex Home Inspection Services in Laurel, Maryland, says he’s been using a drone for about five months in cases where roofs are too steep or high to send a person up to inspect. “We’re not like roofers; we don’t carry around 30-foot ladders,” he says. “It’s about delivering more to the customer and keeping our inspectors safe.”

Orlando Angie’s List member Kareem Weller says Dominic D’Agostino, owner of Longwood, Florida-based Home Pride Inspection Services, effectively used the drone to augment an inspection on a house he was planning to buy.

“He had all the tools required to finish his work in the best way possible,” he says. “An infrared scanner showed us the inside of the walls, and the drone flew over the two-story roof to assess it and take pictures. It safely found a few worn shingles and broken tree branches on the roof that needed to be removed.”

Federal Aviation Administration rules currently allow recreational use of drones, and new rules are underway for commercial use.

Drones also serve useful purposes outside of the inspection field. Matt Ouellette, owner of Ouellette & Associates in Indianapolis, handles insurance claims for homes, commercial buildings and trucking accidents. He says a drone serves as an invaluable tool to get a bird’s-eye view or to get images that otherwise would require renting a cherry picker or climbing a very large ladder.

“We can save a company $1,350 for a cherry picker because we only charge $50 for the drone use,” Ouellette says. “The insurers that hire us like it because they’d much rather have a small drone than a huge cherry picker drive up on the lawn or block traffic.”

In one recent case, he says his drone helped clarify the cause of damage to a church steeple.

“It was so tall it would have cost $5,000 to rent a cherry picker to get up there and get a good enough look,” he says. “We ran our camera up and down and found the busted bolts and seams that indicated a maintenance problem, and they knew what they had to fix.”

Matt Ouellette, owner of Ouellette & Associates in Indianapolis, prepares a drone for flight.

Fricke says Federal Aviation Administration rules currently allow recreational drone use under certain circumstances, but prohibits “commercial usage” of drones. He notes that home inspectors who do use drones use common sense and follow existing rules for recreational use, which include remaining in sight of the vehicle at all times, never flying higher than 400 feet, staying well clear of manned aircraft and at least 5 miles away from airports.

“You’re almost never going to go higher than 40 feet anyway,” he says.

However, the FAA recently released proposed new rules which spell out how and when commercial operators may use a drone and requiring testing and licensing for operators. The rules will go through the FAA’s regular public comment period before being revised and published under the FAA’s authority, which Fricke says is likely to happen in 2016.

The regulations impose similar requirements to the recreational rules, adding a 500-foot maximum height, top speed of 100 miles per hour, and a testing and licensing process for operators.

Ouellette demonstrates how a smartphone and remote control work together for guiding a drone.

Fricke says the existing rules don’t often inhibit home inspectors’ work. “It’s kind of like speeding in your car; you’re not going to have the FAA drone police on every corner,” he says. “I have yet to hear of any home inspector getting hit by a fine by the FAA.”

Blanc notes that some home inspectors haven’t started using drones yet because they’re waiting for the FAA to clarify its position. He says that according to his interpretation of the rules, a home inspector using a drone doesn’t count as “commercial use” for purposes of the regulation because they’re not charging for it.

“We’re not selling the drone itself or its services,” he says. “It’s another tool. We’re constantly looking for new technology that helps us deliver better and more concise information to our customers.”

What do you think about real estate agents, home inspectors and insurance agents using drones? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.


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