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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in the Roofing Industry

May 15, 2015

We’ve heard the media
refer to them as
“drones,” but the more
accurate description is
unmanned aerial vehicle
or UAV. Drones shoot
people with missiles; UAVs don’t.
UAVs cover everything from a $200 toy
for flying practice, up to a $100,000 movie
camera rig. For as little as $3,000, consultants
can add a high-definition flying camera
to their business toolbox.
High-quality images and video are captured
by tiny GoPro cameras on a highspeed
microSD memory card. Simply plug
the card from the GoPro into your computer
and view the images. Many UAVs incorporate
a video downlink that enables you to
see what the camera is seeing in the air
as the UAV is flying. Just choose to hover
in place for more photos or move in closer
for a detailed inspection of an interesting
area. Advanced cameras on bigger rigs can
provide a remote zoom capability for really
close observation. UAVs with prop protection
allow you to fly right up to an objective
with little fear of crashing (Photo 1).
One of the beauties of using a UAV is
how quickly you can get eyes on a roof. No
setting up ladders and scaffolding or traipsing
through locked roof access hatches.
Just unpack the UAV, do a quick calibration
to lock in available GPS satellites, and
fly up top (Photos 2 to 4).
A UAV can safely move through tight
spaces that a full-sized helicopter can’t, for
a lot less money, and with a lot less noise.
Using a UAV is much safer than sending
a person up onto a roof. Replacing a few
helicopter parts if/when the UAV crashes
hurts a lot less than if you or an employee
falls off of a roof.
UAVs that are set up for long-range flight
using an ultra-high frequency (UHF) control
option can quickly survey disaster areas.
Unstable structures damaged by weather
can be safely evaluated from the air.
With the landowner’s permission, sales
prospecting can be done quickly and convincingly.
Will free video of a rotting roof
open doors for your business? Is your
competitor using UAVs already, or is your
business leading the way?
Most radio controllers operate on the
2.4-gigahertz wavelength. These radio
waves do not penetrate solid objects well,
and so most flying needs to be by line of
sight (LOS). Flying LOS, one can’t fly around
a building or over a roof to the point that
one loses sight of the UAV. Upgrading the
control system with a 433-megahertz transmitter
and receiver (about $400) utilizes a
more penetrating wavelength.
When flying beyond the line of sight,
a remote monitor or goggles must be utilized
(Photo 5). This is called first-person
view (FPV) flying and is characterized by
steady forward movement and hovering.
It’s not comfortable flying backwards when
you can’t see what’s behind you. UHF FPV
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Photo 1 – UAVs with prop protection allow you to fly right up to an objective with little fear
of crashing.
flights can travel out to 25 miles (30 kilometers)
without signal loss.
Another good option to flying LOS is
“automatic.” Map out the GPS coordinates of
where the UAV should go, how high it should
be when it gets there, and where it should
look. Then send it on its way and watch the
monitor while it flies.
Strong winds can upset flight control and
affect the quality of images due to vibration.
And, of course, electric motors and cameras
don’t like the rain.
UAVs are not good for poking at surfaces
and lifting obstructions to view as one would
do on a walk-about, but trouble spots that
may need a more thorough examination can
be quickly identified.
• Thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), there are
few professional UAV operators flying in the U.S., because commercial
use is banned without a 333 exemption.1 The FAA is years
behind its mandate to formally regulate UAVs and has missed the
September 2015 goal set out in the FAA Modernization and Reform
Act of 2012. Other countries are surging ahead with agricultural
and other UAV applications. U.S. industry is chomping at the bit.
But recreational flying is just fine. So for the present, many operators
are working in a grey area by flying for free and charging for
editing and packaging their work.
• Local hobby shops and clubs are a good source for leads on local
operators and will provide a firsthand look at the systems available.
• Online forums (
php?28-North-America) provide a conduit to existing operators. Ask
to see samples of their work and contact previous clients.
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Photo 2 – Gutter blockage in precarious spots can be noted from the
air. If the leaves are still dry, the down draft from the UAV’s rotor
wash can actually blow out loose material.
Photo 5 – When flying beyond the line of sight, a remote
monitor or goggles are used.
Photo 3 – Using a UAV for a quick survey of a
large roof is safer and faster than sending someone
up before you’re sure where you need to start.
Photo 4 – Just had a windstorm?
Missing any shingles?
Is there someone in your organization
who enjoys tinkering and learning new technologies?
Set him or her loose into the world
of UAVs. Learning to build and fly multirotors
is challenging but very rewarding. I
will review some of the basics.
Enabling Technologies
Lithium polymer (LiPo) battery packs are
lightweight, high-capacity energy sources
that enable UAVs to stay in the air for 10 to
20 minutes. Soft-sided cells enable stacking
and configurations to fit most any airframe.
Charging LiPos can be dangerous if not
done correctly. A short in the wiring or a
punctured cell will cause a fire. A fireproof
bag should be used when charging LiPos.
Flight controllers (FC) are the small
onboard computers that direct each motor
to speed up or slow down as needed.
Advanced controllers have at least three
flight modes:
1. Manual Mode: This is challenging,
but the most versatile mode. The
UAV does what it’s told and continues
with the last command until it’s
told something different.
2. Attitude Mode: The FC helps to
keep the UAV level.
3. GPS Mode: The UAV will hover in
place wherever you tell it to be in
space. Map out a route using GPS
and have the UAV follow (and repeat
at a later date) a set of coordinates
and altitudes (waypoints). Most FCs
even have a fail-safe option that
commands the UAV to return to a
preprogrammed location and land
safely in the event of a loss of radio
Radio transmitters (Photo 6) broadcast
instructions from the ground to a receiver
on the UAV. The receiver forwards those
instructions to the FC. Eight channels are
enough for most radio UAV applications,
but 18 channel systems can be used to
enable dual operators; one person flies the
UAV while a second person operates the
Gimbals are devices that hold the
camera below the UAV and control where
the camera looks. Gimbals are critical in
smoothing out vibrations and movements.
Two-axis gimbals keep the camera’s field of
view level and allow the camera to be tilted
up and down. Three-axis gimbals add the
ability to pan left and right, irrespective
of the direction of the UAV,
and smooth out sudden turns in the
Criteria Evaluation
Before deciding on a specific
model of UAV for your business,
what are the criteria that should be
used for evaluation?
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Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah,
Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah,
Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah, Blah,
Why are we still debating
the merits of cool roofs?
Thermoplastic white roofs have proven
performance in all climates. Bust the myths:
Oc t o b e r 2 0 1 5 I n t e r f a c e • 1 5
Photo 6 – Radio transmitters.
• Stability directly affects the quality
of the video produced. Generally
speaking, the more rotors in the air,
the steadier the flight will be, and
the UAV can carry more weight, bigger
batteries, and larger cameras.
• Safety is a strong point of smaller
UAVs. A DJI Phantom 2 weighs
1.3Kg (2.8 lbs.), while a DJI S1000
lumbers into the air at 4.2Kg (9.3
lbs.) without a camera. Which one
would you rather fall on someone’s
car? Flying in a city can present
challenges because of increased
radio noise and the presence of
bystanders. Special radios can mitigate
• Portability is also a benefit of smaller
UAVs. Some of the larger UAV
frames fold for transportation, but
those folding joints add weight and
are susceptible to long-term wear.
• Costs run the gamut.
Here are some cost examples:
• $1,600 will hang a GoPro camera
under a ready-to-fly DJI Phantom 3
(Photo 7). If you crash it, a replacement
airframe will get you back in
the air for $1,000.
• 3DR, an American
company, just released
the Solo
Solo (Photo 8) boasts
four additional
automatic flight
modes: cablecam,
orbit, selfie, and follow
me. A complete
Solo with GoPro will
relieve your wallet
of $1,800; replacements
can be found
in your local Best
Buy store. Solo uses a Pixhawk2
for flight control (more info
about Pixhawk below).
• $2,500 puts a GoPro on the front
of a TBS Discovery Pro (Photo 9)
quad-copter with all the gear needed
to produce excellent videos. The
TBS Starter Set includes batteries, a
charger, a radio controller, and FPV
goggles. For an added $350, TBS will
build the UAV and test-fly it for you.
• $3,500 invested with Atlanta Hobby
will get you a DJI F550 hexacopter
(Photo 10), GoPro camera, a gimbal,
and related gear. It is a little bit bigger
and more stable than the TBS.
• $6,350 is the going rate for a DJI
S-1000 large enough to lift the digital
camera of your choice (Photo 11).
Expect to put $3,000 more into batteries,
radios, and professional fabrication.
• Truly custom purpose-built aircraft
run the gamut from $10,000 to
$150,000. Options that may justify
their costs for roofing applications
include thermal forward-looking
infrared (FLIR) cameras from Tau,
lidar range finders with 1-in. (3-cm)
accuracy out to 100 yds. (40 m), and
obstacle “sense and-avoid” arrays.
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Photo 7 – DJI’s Phantom 3.
Photo 8 – 3DR’s Solo.
Photo 9 – TBS’s Discovery Pro.
Photo 10 – DJI’s F550
If the adage “You get what you pay
for” is true, it’s even more accurate in the
air. You don’t want to crash a $3,000 rig
because you saved $20 on a speed controller.
Buy only reputable brands; avoid
copies. What is a reputable name? There
are two major firms that have risen to the
top for UAVs.
DJI is the Chinese mammoth that
brought drones into living rooms for
Christmas. DJI made UAVs affordable. Their
closed system of components resembles the
marketing approach of Apple computers.
Generally, DJI plug-and-play components
only play well with other DJI components.
Customer service is found online in the
form of Wikis and PDF instruction sheets. If
something breaks, buy a new one.
3DR has built its signature Pixhawk
flight controller on the open-source APM
stack flight code. Pixhawk has many more
features and opportunities for more functions,
but is more complicated to learn.
Three elements make up the Pixhawk system:
1. Pixhawk – the actual hardware flight
controller ($200)
2. APM code – the software that runs in
the Pixhawk (free)
3. Mission Planner – the software suite
(free online) that runs on a computer
to setup, program, and fine-tune
the Pixhawk (support forums exist
for every 3DR component, and 3DR
Oc t o b e r 2 0 1 5 I n t e r f a c e • 1 7
Photo 11 – DJI S-1000.
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actually answers its phones and
3DR just released Solo, as mentioned
above. I’d suggest waiting a few months
before investing in a Solo to let the bugs get
worked out of this advanced rig. 3DR has
other UAVs available now that have already
been extensively field-tested.
The GoPro camera is the mainstay for
most midrange flying. The GoPro ($400)
is sturdy, lightweight, readily available,
and shoots up to 4K video. 2.7K, 1440,
and 1080 are also options. Good-resolution
8×10 still images can be pulled from 1080p
video. Replacement lenses are an option
to remove the wide-angle distortion found
in the standard GoPro lens. (By the way,
GoPro has announced it is developing its
own UAV quadcopter, due out sometime
next year.)
Canon makes lightweight cameras with
internal GPS for mapping. Sony NEX 3
($500) through NEX 7 ($670) cameras are
popular for their high-quality video recorded
to solid-state media, as are the Panasonic
Lumix cameras ($800). All of these require
a bigger UAV with a larger gimbal.
So, have you decided that a multirotor
UAV has a place in your firm? Don’t let the
multiple options dissuade you. Whether you
tell the nerdiest person on your staff to go
learn more, or you check out a local hobby
shop to find an operator looking for any
excuse to fly, UAVs are a growing industry
($4 billion forecast for 2015). After spending
the last month mapping cotton fields in
South Georgia to measure plant survival
rates, even I could be convinced to help
someone with air conditioning start a UAV
program. Fly safe!
Questions will be answered at sureshot@
1. A case-by-case authorization for certain
unmanned aircraft to perform
commercial operations prior to the
finalization of the FAA’s Small UAS
Rule. See
As a small boy, Joe
Carson tested the
durability of model
aircraft using lighter
fluid and firecrackers.
being educated at
Oxford College of
Emory University,
Georgia State, and
the University of
Georgia, Carson
developed an understanding
for the physics of air by exiting
flying aircraft at high speed. His first aerial
photographs in 1976 were of fellow parachutists
taken with tiny 110 cameras. Now, 37
years of photography training are combining
with airborne passion to design, build, and
develop uses for small, unmanned aerial tripods
to take photos in difficult locations.
Joe Carson
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One of the most significant First-Century religious structures is no longer standing due to its destruction by ISIS militants.
The main building of the 2,200-year-old Temple of Bel in Palymra, Syria, was destroyed on Sunday, August 30, according to the
Associated Press (AP). A satellite analysis by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNOSAT) confirmed the
building was destroyed. An ISIS operative told AP over Skype that militants had detonated explosives near the temple.
The Temple of Bel was built in or about 32 A.D. and demonstrates the merger of Near Eastern and Greco-Roman architecture.
It had been situated in an important market during the Roman Empire, with access to India, China, and Persia. The Temple
of Bel is dedicated to the Semitic god
Bel and is considered one of the most
important religious buildings of the
early days of Anno Domini (A.D.).
Residents who live near the temple
said that the extremist group destroyed
large parts of the temple and “booby
trapped” the rest of it. The residents
also told the AP that they are concerned
the group plans to destroy the remaining
ruins soon.
“This is the most devastating act yet, in my opinion,”
said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of history and anthropology at
Shawnee State University in Ohio. “It truly demonstrates ISIS’s
ability to act with impunity and the impotence of the international
community to stop them,” he said.
Earlier this month, ISIS militants in Palmyra beheaded
81-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, one of Syria’s most revered antiquities
Various news reports
UNOSAT satellite analysis (left) confirms
Temple of Bel main building (shown before
bombing, below) has been destroyed.
ISIS Destroys Ancient Temple in Palmyra