Drones are an emerging technology in the U.S. and are just now entering the public conscience. Some of us have read about Amazon’s bold plans to have drones deliver goods or have witnessed friends, family, or strangers operating drones in public parks. Despite their public infancy, drones have shown great potential in HVAC-specific capacities.
EYE IN THE SKY
Perhaps drones’ most significant HVACR application lies in their ability to inspect rooftop units. Using a drone allows a technician to gather any pertinent visual information before ascending to the top of a building. Additionally, drones can capture film of technicians and contractors in action, be used for promotional reasons, and provide an eye in the sky to observe numerous other actions that have yet to be considered or explored.
Currently viewed as a relatively unknown job site asset, it’s quite possible that drones may soon become commonplace for commercial HVAC technicians nationwide.
“I actually have a drone and was planning on using it for commercial HVAC use, but the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] has some pretty stringent requirements,” said Alan Slabodkin, vice president of Western Allied in Santa Fe Springs, California. “After learning of these rules, we dropped the idea and never really went beyond that.”
The good news for Slabodkin and other commercial contractors is that the FAA expects around 600,000 drones to be used commercially within a year, per NPR, and that number will dramatically jump to 2.7 million by 2020. The FAA also noted that 20,000 drones are currently registered for commercial use. This rapid expansion follows recent rule changes that altered the requirements necessary to become a commercial drone pilot. Previously, aspiring drone pilots would have to earn a traditional pilot’s license and get permission from regulators. Now, a certification test is in place, and pilots need only follow certain flying restrictions in order to be up and operational.
With restrictions loosening, several commercial HVAC contractors are investing in drone technologies.
Zach Stiver, technician, Integrated Mechanical Systems, Irwindale, California, was drawn to drones’ filming capabilities.
“My friends and I run a filming business on the side,” he said. “So, when I was able to incorporate that into the HVAC business, I think it brought a whole new perspective for our clients and viewers to see what we do.”
Joe Nichter, president, Comfort Systems USA Southwest, Houston, has only used drones to take pictures of his company’s building, though he is excited about their future capabilities.
“I expect, in the not too distant future, we will be conducting rooftop maintenance and discover a problem that can’t be fixed without the OEM replacement part for the repair,” he said. “Since all our technicians have iPads, we’ll take pictures of the part, the unit model, and serial number and forward them to our local supplier. Once the pictures are received, the distributor will be able to dispatch a drone with the replacement parts. This process will enable our technicians to continue with this maintenance and move on to the other units.”
Wayne P. Turchetta, vice president, HMC Service Co., Louisville, Kentucky, said his company is not currently using drones but might in the future.
“We thought about using them for our sales team to keep from having to meet up with a tech to gain access to a roof, but for some reason, we have not done it yet,” Turchetta said.
Stiver is using drones for the exact situation Turchetta discussed. He believes the overall process his team goes through when using drones offers a new look from an entirely different perspective.
“We can save a lot of time and manpower by sending a drone above a rooftop rather than sending a tech up,” he said. “We also use drones to create content for clients. For example, with a drone, we can create a video that showcases our progress and workmanship to the masses.”
Many contractors still have reservations about how effective drones can be in the field.
Nichter mentioned his team has talked about sales applications, but doesn’t feel a good survey could be performed by a drone at this time.
“The identification tags on older equipment tend to fade and become unreadable,” he said. “Maybe as bar codes get more advanced, we will be able to better identify units with the use of drones. In the meantime, we believe they could be used for an initial survey of the roof and a count of the equipment. I am not aware of the flight restrictions, but the use of drones to prospect future customers could also be a useful tool in identifying older equipment, like missing panels, damaged coils, or other units in need of repair.”
Alejandro Armella, director of operations, CYVSA, Mexico City, shares some of those reservations.
“Really, it would be interesting to use drones for pictures, but not really for supervising jobs at this stage,” he said. “In the near future, we could use them, but not really at this moment.”
A LOOK AHEAD
While drones are not yet being used for everything they may be capable of, contractors see plenty of room for growth and expansion of the technology in HVAC.
“I believe energy-related surveys for buildings will incorporate drones in the future,” said Nichter. “Infrared will identify heat loss in buildings and make hard-to-reach areas accessible for monitoring. The feedback given can be tied into virtual reality that can be used to educate customers and define solutions.”
Stiver sees drone usage increasing overall, and it is definitely growing quickly in the trades.
“I can pretty much say for a fact that we will see more and more of the use of drones within the HVAC and construction businesses over the coming years because it’s a game changer when it comes to being able to see things you can’t from the ground and the marketing sides of things, as well,” he said.
Nichter also sees the intersection of HVAC and construction being the most beneficial area for drones in the future.
“Since a large part of our work each year is in construction, we’ve seen land planners, general contractors, and architects use drones for progress pictures on projects and potential site problems that might affect schedules,” he said. “In addition, we believe these units will someday monitor safety on job sites. For instance, several safety infractions happen on job sites without anyone knowing. In the future, rooftops, trenches, or areas that have potentially high risks for accidents could be monitored, and near misses could be identified for review. An early warning system could be established to notify the company of safety infractions, which could prevent several accidents in the future.”
The future looks bright for drones. According to recent reports by consulting firm PWC, the drone industry could be worth as much as $127 billion by 2020. It will be interesting to see if interest in the technology from the HVAC industry takes flight.
Publication date: 6/5/2017