The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) final rule expanding the circumstances in which drone operations may be conducted over people, over moving vehicles, and at night went into effect April 21, 2021.
Manufacturers now may expand internal implementation of drone technology to simplify inspections and streamline processes, and OSHA may increase the use of drones as an enforcement tool for workplace safety.
On December 28, 2020, the FAA announced a final rule, Operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Over People, which permits expanded routine operations of drones over people without waiver or exemption under certain circumstances — provided such operations meet requirements of one of four operational categories. The first three operational categories are based on the risk of injury that drones pose to people on the ground. The last category is based on the airworthiness certificate of the drones.
Drones offer manufacturers increased productivity and access to data otherwise deemed too dangerous or difficult to obtain. Drones capture thermal images of lines and machinery to detect temperature changes, which signal for quick and proactive action when equipment is too hot.
In May 2018, OSHA released a memorandum permitting the use of drones during OSHA inspections and only with an employer’s express consent. OSHA is exploring the option of filing an application for a Blank Public Certificate of Authorization from the FAA for nationwide drone operations.
Currently, each of OSHA’s 10 regions must appoint a drone program manager to institute the drone program in compliance with Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
No regulation has been issued requiring employers to consent to an OSHA drone inspection. But the FAA’s final rule could encourage OSHA to update its drone policy to increase regular drone use during inspections — possibly even without employer consent. Given manufacturing facilities’ typically larger area and ceiling clearance, it is more likely OSHA will seek to use drone inspections in manufacturers’ facilities than other types of employers.