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Opinion: NYC Should Ease Drone Rules and Put Them to Work

There are countless uses for unmanned aerial vehicles across New York City including public safety and inspections, among others. Unfortunately, the devices remain far too strictly regulated to realize their full potential.

A man flies a DJ1 Drone over the East River from Pier 1 in Brooklyn on Friday November 11, 2022. 1113. (Theodore Parisienne)
Theodore Parisienne/TNS
(TNS) — After a spate of shark attacks off Long Island, Gov. Hochul is sending surveillance drones to vigilantly scour the water for the fearsome predators. While we’re no fan of shark-bite hysteria — encounters are exceedingly rare, and New York hasn’t had a fatal shark attack in decades — the move, which will cost a mere $1 million, may prove prudent at least to keep people feeling safe in the water.

The bigger question is why New York can’t make smarter use of drones for other purposes. We’ve registered a strong objection with letting drone ads fill the skies in a city already cluttered with commercial appeals everywhere, but there are countless smart, valid public uses for unmanned aerial vehicles. Unfortunately, right now drones remain far too strictly regulated.

One new rule, long overdue, would allow wider use of drones to make inspections of building facades faster, cheaper and easier than the current regime, which requires the construction of cumbersome and ugly sidewalk sheds. Nimble little remote-controlled devices equipped with thermal-sensing cameras can do an excellent job detecting cracks and assessing roofs.

So too, the city should loosen up proposed draconian NYPD limitations that only let flyers obtain permits to operate the devices when they demonstrate need, detail their plans in advance and provide proof of insurance. So long as public safety and personal privacy are taken into account, so long as no helicopter or airplane flight paths are interfered with, there’s no reason a journalist should be allowed to fly a manned helicopter but not an unmanned drone over Manhattan. The 30-day notice provision would outlaw using drones for newsgathering.

These new restrictions, which were the subject of a public hearing Friday, written under an ancient avigation law, are too constraining — we’ll see how many people actually apply for the still-cumbersome $150 permits. No one should wish for the skies of America’s largest city to become a free-for-all, but the days of barring safe and productive use of a cost-effective technology should be behind us.

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