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.
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.
Fire & disaster management
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.
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.
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.
Assisting people experiencing homelessness
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.