February 14, 2017

From the Super Bowl to Your Service Van: Drones in HVAC

Did you know the same technology providing a stunning prop in the half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl can also be used to inspect rooftop HVAC systems, intake and exhaust vents, and many other elements of the health and energy efficiency of a building? As regulations evolve and drones become less expensive, you’ll see more of them taking flight under the command of HVAC professionals like yourself.

The proper term for a drone is Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). They fly by remote control, and some are capable of following a programmed flight path. UAVs were first used in the military for anti-aircraft exercises. Today, they are utilized by the energy and agriculture sectors, they are used for security, and Amazon even has plans to make deliveries with them.

Drones are becoming popular in the building industry as well. Swiss architects Gramazio & Kohler have developed a “Flight Developed Architecture” concept for the construction of an elaborate modular building that involves use of drones.

The most common use of drones is mounting cameras on them for video capture. This has huge potential for building management and inspection.

How drones keep HVAC systems in check

A drone with the right camera and software can limit the need for scaffolding, scissor lifts and extra workers, making inspections more affordable. Frequent fly-by inspections will mean problems such as debris in an intake vent can be discovered before they become a drain on the energy efficiency of the building. Breaches in the integrity of the building envelope could be detected early, saving building operators thousands.

In areas where high winds can knock branches onto rooftop HVAC units, drones can be used in post-storm surveys of all the buildings in an affected area. Smaller drones with powerful lights can be used to inspect ducts and other indoor material. In large plants with miles of duct work, the savings would be substantial.

Drones are an excellent way to gather thermal imaging. HVAC professionals already use thermal imaging to detect leaks and other sources of energy loss in a building. With a drone, you can combine the interior infrared imaging with exterior infrared images for a 360-degree view of what is happening with the HVAC system. Images can be patched together into a 3D model of the building, showing the exact site of inefficiencies.

Regulations slow down drone usage

Wondering why drones have yet to be widely adopted in Canada and the US? One reason: Regulations. Until August 2016, you needed a pilot license for commercial use of a drone in the US, but that’s changing.

The new regulations in the US require only a Remote Pilot Airman’s Certificate, which is much easier to obtain than a full pilot’s license. The pilot must have a visual on the drone at all times, and the vehicle can only be operated during daylight hours. There are also limitations on the speed and altitude, but those have little impact on the application of drones in HVAC.

Canadian regulations are similar to those in the US. For commercial use of a drone, you need a Special Flight Operations Certificate, the pilot must always have visual contact with the drone, and the vehicle can only be flown during daylight hours.

Once the technology and regulations mature, drones will transform the HVAC industry by helping you and your customers improve building efficiency.

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