The Part 107 rules did a lot to open up United States airspace to commercial drone operations, and there’s never been a better time to incorporate aerial imaging into construction and real estate. Even though construction growth projections for 2017 might not be so bullish as recent years, there’s still plenty of opportunity, especially in larger cities. A 2016 report by JLL shows that 65 percent of the office space pipeline is concentrated in just ten markets.
If you’re in the process of launching commercial drone ops, be sure to download our free guide for construction companies.
If you’re a fleet operator specializing in construction, or a contractor who uses drones on construction sites, it helps to know what the airspace restrictions look like in your area, and whether you will need a waiver or permit to fly. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the largest construction markets in the USA, and how friendly their airspace is to commercial drone operations. I’ve used the Skyward Airspace Map, which makes it easy for operators to understand global airspace regulations under 500 feet AGL.
If you would like to use a drone in one of these cities, but feel stymied by the restricted airspace, don’t despair: apply for a waiver or airspace authorization from the FAA. There’s no guarantee you’ll get it, but the process is simple and straightforward.
New York Metropolitan Area
As you would expect with three major airports in the vicinity (LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark), there is a lot of Class B restricted airspace blanketing New York City. In addition, the Hudson River and East River Special Flight Rules Areas (SFRA) restrict drone flight above the rivers, the consequence of a 2009 midair crash of a sightseeing helicopter and a private aircraft. Also, do you see that conspicuous red circle over Midtown Manhattan? That’s a Permanent Temporary Flight Restriction (yes, that exists) over the president’s family’s residence. It does not have a published expiration date and it’s likely to be in place for a while. You can still theoretically fly in some of these areas, but you would need to obtain permission from air traffic control—which may be difficult to get in NYC. The penalties for operating without the required permission can be very steep.
Nevertheless, there is some great news here: the low altitude airspace over most of Brooklyn is completely open, and there are plenty of construction projects there. Jersey City is another area between the chunks of controlled airspace, and it is undergoing rapid growth. Twenty five thousand housing units are slated for construction, and five thousand are underway — that’s part of the reason why Jersey City is projected to surpass Newark as the state’s largest city.
The Dallas/Fort Worth area has seen runaway development over the past few years, and the skyline is cluttered with cranes. Falling oil prices haven’t hit this town as hard as other places in Texas, and they’re enjoying a population surge, which spells a tight residential housing market. There’s plenty of infrastructure spending as well, with new data centers and highways being built in recent years.
The downside? A lot of this new construction is happening in areas which lie within Class B controlled airspace surface area. But remember, just because airspace is controlled doesn’t mean that you cannot fly there — it just means you need to apply for a waiver in order to do so.
The upside is that, as you can see on the map, Plano, Garland, and North Richland Hills are outside of the Class B controlled airspace surface area. Like the city of Dallas itself, the suburbs are enjoying a population surge as Dallas’ cup runs over. With that growth comes opportunity for drone operations.
Another city in Texas which enjoyed huge growth over the past half-decade, Houston, was hit harder than Dallas by the decline in oil prices, and the construction industry was not immune to that slowdown. Despite a banner year in 2016, there are indications that overall construction growth, especially the construction of office buildings, will suffer in the near future.
That said, there are still plenty of projects underway, especially in the housing and engineering sectors, and luckily for drone operators, Houston has relatively friendly airspace. Large swaths of west, central, and east Houston are completely free for commercial drone operations. Included in these open areas is the San Jacinto mall, which is currently being renovated and redesigned.
San Francisco Bay/Silicon Valley
Let’s go west now to California, the largest state economy in the country. Thanks in large part to the tech industry’s largesse, construction projects in and around the Bay Area are booming, along with massive scale infrastructure undertakings like high speed rail. Though development in San Francisco proper has been famously hamstrung by NIMBY-ism, there is still plenty of meat on the bone for drone operators in the surrounding cities and towns.
Glancing at the map, you can see that the half-dozen towered airports in this area are carving up a lot of the airspace in Silicon Valley. On the bright side, San Francisco, Berkeley, and downtown Oakland are wide open — at least for the moment. This area is subject to frequent TFRs, so always make sure to check an updated map before you fly. There is plenty of new construction all across the area, particularly in the office and residential sectors, and the tech-friendly climate should lead to an easy sell when offering your services.
Staying on the West Coast but moving north, we find the scorching construction industry in the Seattle area. There are multitudes of projects here that could benefit by using drones (the two largest being The Mark skyscraper and the Eighth and Howell Convention Hotel), and this is a city that is no stranger to aerospace and tech — both Amazon and Boeing are major players in the local economy. Due to Boeing’s presence and the proximity of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, southern Seattle is almost completely covered by Class D controlled airspace. Fortunately, North Seattle has no such limitations, and the airspace over nearby Bellevue is wide open for drones.
The Windy City is one of the top five markets for construction, and though it might be slowing down a little, there is still plenty of volume to work with. The residential and industrial sectors more than make up for somewhat sluggish commercial growth. Luckily for drone operators, the airspace is remarkably open. Midway Airport’s Class C airspace covers a fairly large area in the southwest of the city, and O’Hare makes things tricky in the northwest, but there is still plenty of room for drone operations to find purchase.
A consequence of Washington, D.C. being the seat of U.S. government is that its airspace is very tightly regulated. For reasons of national security, there are significant restrictions on flying drones here. By federal statute, there is a 30-nautical mile radius Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) centered on Ronald Reagan International Airport, in which commercial UAS operations are allowed to fly, subject to specific requirements. But within the SFRA, there is a Flight Restricted Zone roughly 15 nautical miles in radius in which drone use is expressly prohibited. This is unfortunate news for UAS operators hoping to capitalize on construction in the District of Columbia.
The final city on our list has a very rosy future when it comes to the marriage of drones and construction. The industry is having trouble keeping pace with demand, and the nationwide shortage of skilled labor is the only thing holding back Denver’s roaring construction sector. The news is all good for drone operators though: of all the cities we’ve looked at so far, Denver is by far the most friendly to UAV operations.
Look at that beautiful sight. The low altitude airspace over the city itself is almost entirely open, and the airports and airbases are clustered on the eastern edge. This spells huge opportunity for companies hoping to incorporate aerial imaging into their processes.