Could drones be used by housing associations?

The use of drones (or unmanned aerial vehicles as they are officially known) in social housing may seem like an improbable prospect, but it’s not as far-fetched as it may first appear. News recently emerged that two housing associations are to trail the use of drones in the hope that using them could reduce the cost of managing their homes.

As revealed by Inside Housing, Halton Housing Trust and Bromford have both recently purchased drones with the intention of using them to carry out inspections on properties and for surveying development land. The article mentions that they could, for example, take photographs of roofs to see if any maintenance or repair work is required. Currently, photographs like these are taken manually (by a person) and therefore require scaffolding to be erected first. This can be both expensive for the housing association and inconvenient or even intrusive for the resident.

So is this idea just pie in the sky, or could it prove truly beneficial for housing associations and their residents? As with anything, the answer to that will come in time, but it certainly offers some interesting potential benefits.

Money saving

Probably the biggest advantage of using drones will come in the cost savings that could be achieved. For inspections of things such as roofs, the cost of hiring, erecting and taking down scaffolding can run into the thousands. Where drones could be used instead, this would not be required so the potential cost savings are immediately obvious.

Another way in which drones could possibly be used (as mentioned in the Inside Housing article) is for land inspections. So, any land that has been earmarked as a possible development site could be inspected from the air and the pictures captured could presumably help in the planning process. Whether it would also save money by reducing the need for on-site inspections is another question.

Less intrusive for residents

Residents could also benefit from the use of drones, as they could prove less intrusive and more convenient than current inspection methods (especially when scaffolding is involved). Although your first thought when hearing mention of drones may be that they are used to spy on people, clearly this is not the intention here. Instead, by reducing the need for scaffolding they could allow inspections to be undertaken without residents having to be inconvenienced.

Drones and the BBC

The use of drones is becoming more widespread and they are proving especially useful for broadcasters, including the BBC. They now have an in-house drone journalism team and have used drones, or ‘hexacopters’ as the BBC calls them, to film some great footage.

BBC reporter Richard Westcott was one of the first to use the ‘hexacopter’. He said that it can be used to get shots not possible with any other equipment and journalists are excited by its potential. Although journalism and social housing are two entirely different kettles of fish, this does at least show that using drones in social housing may not be as strange an idea as it first sounds.

Caveats

As with anything, there are some caveats to address. The main issue is around safety and there will also inevitably be privacy concerns raised. Then, there is the question of operating the drones themselves.

On safety, the use of drones is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and some of the rules listed on their website include:

  • The aircraft must be kept within the visual line of sight
  • The aircraft cannot be flown over or within 150 metres of any congested area
  • The aircraft cannot be flown within 50 metres of any person

On privacy, it should be remembered that using the drones for spying simply won’t come in to the equation. Unsurprisingly, they’re not allowed to be used for this and any images collected using the drones are also subject to the Data Protection Act. So it is highly unlikely that drones would raise any new privacy issues.

When it comes to operating the drones, the first thing to know is that permission is required to use them for commercial purposes. Part of this involves providing “proof of the pilot’s overall airmanship skills and awareness and his/her ability to operate the aircraft safely”. Currently, this means an independent assessment of a pilot’s knowledge and abilities and means that no organisation can simply buy a drone and start using it for commercial purposes.

Innovation in housing

Whether or not the use of drones becomes commonplace in housing associations, this idea represents a way in which some in the social housing sector are looking to innovate. That, in itself, should be recognised. Although the sector does not traditionally have a highly-commercial focus, there is no reason why new ideas should not be welcomed. They won’t always work, but without fresh ideas the sector could stagnate and that is certainly not a good thing.