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7 ways drones are piloting local government innovation

Cities and counties are turning to small unmanned aircraft to do everything from finding missing people to removing weeds and supporting those experiencing homelessness.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones)

Chula Vista, CA

United States


Clovis, CA

United States


Ada County, ID

United States


Jackson County, MS

United States


Corpus Christi, TX

United States


Collier County, FL

United States


Maitland, NSW



Mckenzie County, ND

United States


Salford City Council, GB

United Kingdom


Dun Laoghaire / Rathdown, IE



Ekurhuleni, GP

South Africa


Middletown, OH

United States


Tupelo, MS

United States

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  • Many localities are using drones to support public safety departments, including deploying them as first responders to 911 calls, or using them in search and rescue missions.

  • The aerial footage captured by drones can also be a great way to market a community, or assess use of parks and public spaces.

  • Some councils are offering drone training as a way to engage with citizens.

  • Privacy concerns require local governments to maintain transparency and communicate how any captured data or imagery is being used.


The world is abuzz over drones.
Companies such as Amazon are exploring how to deliver packages via drone. Photographers are going wild over the awesome landscapes they can capture from above. And more and more local governments are piloting innovative new uses of unmanned aircraft, to do everything from solving crimes to killing weeds to addressing homelessness.
Drones can cut down on costs required to fund staff, helicopters, and more. They can perform assessments and tasks across difficult terrain or in remote places, without putting government workers at risk.
Of course, there are considerations such as privacy and safety that must be taken into account, too. Let’s take a look at how local governments around the globe are using drones, and how others can learn from their efforts.

Public safety

One of the most common applications of drones at the local level is to support public safety departments. A number of communities are using the aircraft to assist first responders. In Chula Vista, CA, the police department tried sending drones out as an initial response to 911 calls within 1 mile of the police station. The drone program has led to over 100 arrests over the course of 1,000 drone deployments. A few hours north of Chula Vista, the Clovis, CA, police department is testing a similar approach, using drones to reduce the number of false alarms and to promote social distancing for law enforcement officers.
Other police departments are using drones to assist with long term investigations, search and rescue efforts, and more. In Idaho, the Ada County Sheriff’s Office used drones to capture a fugitive who was evading arrest, and, through thermal imaging technology on the devices, they helped police rescue two hunters who had gotten lost in the wilderness. Howard County, MD, has purchased three drones for similar uses and is training ten officers to be pilots. In Rochester, MN, police are using search and rescue drones (which can operate in all weather) to locate people with special needs as part of Project Lifesaver.
The benefits of these public safety-equipped drones are numerous. They can act quickly and reach places that are difficult for ground vehicles or personnel to get to. They can utilize add-on technology, like live streaming — Jackson County, MS, added this to its drones to better prepare first responders’ tactical responses when arriving on the scene. They also cost less than alternate investigation equipment — the Las Vegas Metro Police added drones to its aerial fleet because the devices cost a fraction of what helicopters were costing ($20 per week compared to $400-$1,000 per hour).

Fire & disaster management

Police activity isn’t the only public safety arena where drones are seeing success. In Corpus Christi, TX, an effort to use drones to gather 360-degree views of fires and hazmat incidents has been so successful, the city invested $30,000 in drone technology that can cover nearby Nueces County and San Patricio County.
The aerial devices have also become an increasingly valuable tool during hurricane recovery — states, federal agencies, insurance companies, and local governments have all turned to drones. After Hurricane Irma hit Collier County, FL, in 2017, the county relied on drones to assess the damage. The aerial images were then shared on social media to let evacuated residents see their properties and decide when they could return.

Public works and land management

Some local government responsibilities, like keeping weeds off public lands and maintaining roads, may grab fewer headlines than disasters and investigations. But they make a big impact on residents’ daily lives.
In Maitland, NSW, the council tested a program that sends drones along the Hunter River to spray herbicide and kill weeds. The drones used GPS to hit hard-to-reach spots, and were more efficient, using less herbicide and water than traditional methods. They also were safer and more effective — using land-based vehicles to do this work can actually spread the weeds, and may expose city workers to chemicals. The trial was a success, and Maitland is now rolling out the weed-spraying drones in other locations.
In McKenzie County, ND, gravel roads are sometimes damaged when large trucks use them after heavy rainfall — and fixing them is not cheap. The county is looking to drones to conduct safety evaluations on the roads, and determine when they should be opened or closed. The project, which is in phase one of two, could also introduce a new radar system that would have further benefits beyond road assessments.

Destination marketing & economic development

Drones have long been a tool of real estate developers and photographers looking for a big-picture view. For local governments, the same benefits apply. Drones are a cost-effective way to conduct surveys or capture imagery to be used for economic development or marketing.
The Salford City Council, GB, used drone footage to show off the improvements it made to green spaces and waterways around the traditionally industrial city. The council created a 4-minute video using the footage, highlighting the recent investments and encouraging residents to explore the transformed parks, gardens, and trails.

Public health

In the age of social distancing, many councils are assessing what changes need to be made to public spaces that were not designed with crowd-prevention in mind. The Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, IE, council is using drone footage to monitor public crowding and inform decisions on social distancing restrictions. The council flies drones over public spaces such as beaches and parks to collect data on usage times and crowd density. By pairing this intel with on-the-ground surveys, the county will explore adjustments to the public spaces, in order to maximize their use while still promoting safe physical distancing measures.

Facilitating training and youth education

Drones aren’t just being used to solve problems; they’re also a tool to engage and educate the community. In South Africa, the City of Ekurhuleni convened a handful of local technical and educational partners to launch a 20-week Drone Start-up Accelerator Programme for local youths. This accelerator trains young people to become drone pilots and encourages them to imagine new ways that drones can be used to solve problems.
In Middletown, OH, the city is redeveloping part of its regional airport to include an aviation education facility. Part of this program will include a drone certification course from Butler Tech. Butler Tech will lease space at the airport and will be responsible for building it out into a drone facility.

Assisting people experiencing homelessness

Local governments are using all sorts of emerging technology to help reduce homelessness, from AI to geographic data to, you guessed it: drones. In some places, like Tupelo, MS, homeless encampments may be found in wooded or rural areas that don’t get as noticed as those in more populated areas. The Tupelo Fire Department is using infrared imaging technology deployed from a drone to identify camps. The city can then connect people to support resources and housing.
Now, as public health concerns increase the risk for those living in homeless camps, other cities and counties, such as Calvert County, MD; Forth Worth, TX; Chula Vista, CA; and San Pablo, CA are using a similar technique. The drones are often equipped with speakers to broadcast information.
Some advocates for those experiencing homelessness note that drones — or any sort of government interference — may not be trusted by the people they’re trying to reach. But local officials claim that, especially in light of of social distancing and limited resources, the drones are the most efficient, and safest, way to make contact and provide help.


Drones are not without their controversies. There are a handful of concerns surrounding drone use: invasion of privacy, safety, and regulations are common ones. The regulations are fairly straightforward — any office employing drones must make sure to follow all registration and flight ordinances.
When it comes to safety, proper training is key. A drone is not a remote control car; piloting requires experience and in some cases, certification. Local governments are assigning specific staff members to train and pilot the drones; others, such as McKenzie County, ND, are partnering with drone companies — this allows a community to take advantage of the device and technology without being responsible for training or equipment.
When it comes to privacy concerns, the key is to communicate. The Ada County Idaho Sheriff's Office notes that its team has been vocal with residents about what drones can and cannot do, including rules against invasion of privacy. Any jurisdiction planning on using drones should do the same, ensuring that the devices’ flight and data use are transparent.


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Lindsay Pica-Alfano

Co-founder at Govlaunch



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