The City’s Drone Opportunity

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, are not just for fighting wars or terrorists. Equipped with cameras or other sensors, they can observe and record information on areas that are expensive or difficult to survey otherwise. Unlike conventional manned vehicles, which can cost $1000 an hour

A drone helicopter. CC Image by  of Newtown graffiti on Flickr

A drone helicopter. CC Image by of Newtown graffiti on Flickr

for a contracted helicopter company, drones are cheap. You can buy a ready to fly one for under $600 today. Add a laptop and digital camera that you might already have lying around, and you can be flying in no time. Or you can build your own for even less.

These drones are being used in the United States right now, and speculating about further uses for them is one of America’s hottest parlor games. Much of the focus is on commercial uses, but drones also represent an opportunity for local governments.

The main local use is law enforcement. Surveying crime scenes, investigating arson, tracking cattle thieves, fighting forest fires, and search and rescue missions are among the uses that they’ve already been put or that are being bandied about. Drones allow police to see more space, more safely, and at a lower cost than manned patrols.

More exciting and less controversial, I think, is using drones to save money in providing routine city services. For example, the sheriff’s office in Mesa County, Colorado told a Senate panel that they saved almost $10,000 by using a drone to do their annual survey of a landfill property (I’m not sure how they surveyed the landfill previously, but this also seems much more aromatically pleasant). I can also imagine drones being useful in doing inspections of brush clearance or large industrial operations, and for transit agencies inspecting damage from a storm – perhaps even in real time. Drones will represent a cost savings opportunity anytime a local government needs to look at a lot of physical space and a safety advantage anytime the inspection is dangerous.

Drones can also provide benefits to local citizens. Those many commercial uses mean cost savings for local farmers and businesses, and jobs for those providing the services. Local citizens will also want to use them for fun. There was even something called a Drone Smackdown in Virginia last year.

Finally, there are lots of jobs to be had from manufacturing and testing drones. One estimate of the global drone market size suggests it could reach $15.1 billion by 2025, although that is currently expected to be chiefly for military drones. That could mean as many as 100,000 jobs. Small wonder, then, that 50 sites in 37 states have already applied to be among the Federal Aviation Administration’s six test sites as they try out new technology enabling drones to safely be part of the national airspace. Cities can apply through May 6.

Before cities can capture all these opportunities, there are a number of legal challenges for local governments and their citizens to handle. Check back next week for more.

m4s0n501

About Matthew Lipka

Matthew Lipka is a 1L at HLS. Before law school, he worked at a transit agency and as a consultant with infrastructure and industrial companies and the public sector.

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