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In Drones, Cities See New Frontiers, and Concerns 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

When October’s Hurricane Matthew swiped across the Outer Banks community of Manteo, it wouldn’t be long before detailed imagery of the aftermath would emerge – probably more quickly than most other towns could manage, at least in surveying sites inaccessible by car. 

Manteo is one of only a handful of towns at this point that owns a drone, and by now, you probably already know where this is going. After the storm, the town sent the small, remote-controlled aircraft to the sky to document the damage with an attached, high-resolution camera.

"Previously, we were only able to assess damage that we could see driving down through our streets," said Steve Jozik, information technology specialist with the Town of Manteo. He said the drone was especially helpful in checking over Pirate’s Cove, a Manteo residential community that sits out on a slender peninsula. "So it’s relatively low-cost for us to get out and fly and survey damage (where) we wouldn’t be able to see it any other way," other than a much more expensive and time-consuming helicopter or airplane flyover, Jozik said.

What’s perhaps most notable: Manteo is a pretty small town, with less than 1,500 residents and a limited governmental staff, making its drone purchase all the more innovative and experimental.

"There wasn’t really any precedent for a town operating a drone, and actually we were having issues finding support networks (and) other towns that had similar ambitions," Jozik explained, adding that the initial idea for Manteo’s drone was to capture aerial imagery of special events, traffic or public works projects. A government access television grant paid for the aircraft.

The fact that there are so many different applications for drones in local government has municipalities across the state and nation dreaming. That’s not to say that drones – more officially called "unmanned aerial systems/vehicles" – are a brand new technology. They’re not. But awareness of their potential in public services – from search-and-rescue to land-planning surveys to environmental monitoring to traffic observation to inspections – is spreading quickly these days as costs come down and long-awaited federal rules take hold.

State Rep. John Torbett of Stanley, an expert on the technology and known in legislative circles as the "Drone Guy," suggests the list of applications could stretch from Murphy to Manteo.

"I sat in my office desk one day – this is probably 15 years ago – and was trying to list all the applications I could just think of," he began at a recent League forum on what drones mean for local government. "And I could still be sitting here today writing down additional applications. They are numerous, they are out there, they are abundant, in both the governmental and civilian marketplace."  

And that civilian factor is nothing to ignore. Local governments across the state have been researching the ramifications of regulating private use of drones – which are available in variety and, increasingly, for low retail prices. For all their potential, they also bring about concerns over misuse (think public safety, privacy and nuisance issues).

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has exclusive authority over the use of airspace in the U.S., left room for state and local government authority in its recent final rule for drones. That rule determined that federal preemption of state and local rules wasn’t warranted and that "certain legal aspects concerning small (drone) use may be best addressed at the state or local level."

The National League of Cities (NLC), in a statement this past June, called that a great opportunity for the drone industry to work with municipal leaders. "Cities commend the FAA for taking this important step in acknowledging that broad federal preemption would represent an overreach into regulations that have always been left to city officials, because these decisions are best handled at the local level," NLC CEO Clarence E. Anthony said.

The rule took effect in August, by which time NLC had prepared a report, titled "Cities and Drones," to serve as a primer. You can read it at nlc.org. It explains federal law on drone operation, what requirements exist for private and governmental use, and steps cities can take to promote accountability without stifling innovation.

Specifics of the FAA’s final rule, and how to get started with drone operation, are at www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started

The N.C. Department of Transportation also offers resources, at ncdot.org/aviation/UAS/about, including a study guide and North Carolina’s existing laws with respect to safety and privacy in drone usage and for permitting. These laws do not interfere with the FAA’s rule.

For an extensive dissection of drones and local government in North Carolina, you can view the League’s recent forum in full online. Point your browser to youtu.be/YKK_loUcbg0.

Episode 13 of Municipal Equation, the League’s biweekly podcast, also takes a close look at drones in local government, with insights from Jozik and other expert guests. Listen to it at soundcloud.com/municipalequation or at nclm.org.

Clearly, there’s a lot left to ponder, and a lot of questions to answer. Among them: Will this article appear naïve to future generations in the same way we cringe at early pop-culture reporting on the Internet?

"All of the answers have not been determined yet," Representative Torbett tells municipalities. "We’re going to rely on your expertise, your applications, your knowledge, your understanding, as you delve into this very unique and exciting emerging market…."