Cities across America will need to decide how they want to manage widespread commercial drone use, how they want to adopt drone technology for themselves, and how best they can encourage innovation in this exciting and growing field while still ensuring public safety.
We live in automated times. The technologies that for many represent the modern epoch – automobiles and airplanes – are maturing into a connected and automated future which will mark this century as much as Ford and the Wright brothers marked the previous one. While fully self-driving cars may still be a decade or so away, remotely piloted and even automated drones are already here.
Drones, like airplanes before them, are proving to be a versatile technology. Whether they are revolutionizing search and rescue capabilities or those of realtors showing off their homes, drones are lowering the cost and increasing the reach of airborne services. An individual can buy a drone for as little as a hundred dollars, sometimes less, and mount it with a low-cost high definition camera. While this technology puts the sky within reach for the layman, it also represents an opportunity for cities to augment their public services in new and innovative ways.
Drone sales have ballooned this decade, with around 700,00 recreational drones sold in 2015 alone. The retail research group NDP released a report in May announcing that drone sales tripled from the previous year. On June 21, the Federal Aviation Administration, which expects the number of drones to grow from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million by 2020, released new comprehensive regulations governing the use of drones in U.S. airspace.
While the new FAA regulations make strides towards strengthening drone registration and accountability infrastructure, they leave the bulk of enforcement and regulation to local and state government. As our skies become more crowded than ever, it is up to cities across America to decide how and when they want to see widespread commercial drone use, how they want to adopt drone technology for some of their own operations, and how best they can encourage innovation in this exciting and growing field while still ensuring public safety, accountability, and enforcement.
Drone technology promises to bring some exciting innovations that will help cities save revenue while increasing the effectiveness of the services they offer. Already, cities like Somerville, Massachusetts, and Tampa, Florida, are adopting drones for aerial inspections of city infrastructure. Arlington, Texas, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, are using drones to augment their local law enforcement capabilities. While drones offer a boon to municipalities looking to increase their effectiveness while lowering costs, this technology is quickly being adopted commercially as well. Drones are already used for precision farming and aerial photography, and are well on their way to being adopted for emergency medical services and commercial package delivery.
In a familiar pattern, innovation has outpaced legislation, leaving some cities behind as new drone businesses and practices emerge. When cities and towns are slow to act, they face possible preemption by their state legislatures, as has occurred in Maryland, and are missing a meaningful opportunity to shape drone use in their communities. The National League of Cities (NLC) has just released its municipal guide, Cities and Drones, as the first comprehensive study of the landscape of municipal drone adoption and regulation. The objective of this report is to assist local policy and decision makers as they consider their own community’s embrace of this technology. The challenge for local officials will be crafting policy and regulations that enable this drone technology to serve their cities best, embracing innovation, while still considering the safety and privacy concerns of their residents.
To read more about this issue, check out our full report, Cities and Drones: What Cities Need to Know About Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or the shorter issue brief.
About the Author: Elias Stahl is the Urban Innovation Intern in the National League of Cities (NLC) Center for City Solutions and Applied Research.