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Experts: For Drones to Work in the Air, Get Buy-In on the Ground

During a National League of Cities webinar on Monday, various state and city unmanned aerial systems leaders provided insight into what needs to be done to advance drone operations of all types.

drone over traffic
Community engagement and more routine operations are the main keys to integrating drones in American society, according to state and local sources who spoke during a National League of Cities webinar on Monday. 

The webinar, titled “What Cities and States Learned from Expanded Drone Pilots,” featured the project leads for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Integration Pilot Program (IPP), which expires this month. 

Mark Blanks, director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, said the drone delivery program in Christiansburg, Virginia, started in October 2019 after four months of meeting with residents and officials. As a result, the project received almost zero negative feedback. 

“It just shows that effectively engaging with the community can make this a positive experience for everybody,” Blanks said. 

Blanks added that randomized flight paths for deliveries help distribute noise equitably. 

Katelyn McCauley, program manager of San Diego IPP, said the biggest lesson learned for her city was the need to bring everyone to the table long before you intend to fly drones. For one thing, zoning and land use agreements can cause delays. Moreover, McCauley found it helpful to learn about community concerns from every angle. 

“That enabled us to build separate portfolios of issues depending on which services we were looking to provide,” McCauley said. 

Other project leads were taken aback by the positive reception to drones and the sheer amount of interest in the services that drones can provide. Robert Brock, director of aviation at the Kansas Department of Transportation, said he was surprised that privacy and noise weren’t bigger issues. 

“Our assumptions were wildly wrong in a number of areas,” Brock said. 

Brock added that his team had also assumed the FAA would be difficult to work with, but the federal agency ended up being willing to think outside of the box. 

Basil Yap, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) program manager for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, went into detail about a successful disaster response use case. While dealing with floods caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018, North Carolina used drones to collect data on bridges and other infrastructure, stream live video of traffic, monitor detour routes and observe the flooding as it progressed. 

Nicholas Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site in North Dakota, also spoke about the usefulness of drones during floods. The technology not only informed decisions about road closures and openings but also aided the state in public outreach. Sometimes people don’t take closed road markers seriously because they can’t see water. Citizens were more convinced when they were able to see flood imagery captured by drones on social media. 

Yap added that sometimes it’s hard to tell how much of an impact a given drone operation can have. For example, Walmart using drones to deliver goods may not seem that meaningful on the surface, but North Carolina found that such a service can be significant for people who live in food deserts. 

Terry Blue, vice president of operations for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said while using drones at an airport presents complexities, such as radio frequency issues, his organization found multiple areas where drones can help, including aircraft inspection and debris detection on runways. 

“This new technology does actually have a place in the airport environment,” Blue said. “It has the potential to do things that are done on a regular basis in a safer manner.”

Many challenges with drone integration remain, however. James Grimsley, executive director of advanced technology initiatives for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said more regular drone operations and federal programs are needed for data collection. More operations would allow stakeholders to assess return on investment as well as develop rules, which is important given that technology tends to outpace the regulatory system. 

Rebecca Venis, neighborhood services director for Reno, Nev., said cities may need to “see more drones flying” before making decisions on regulations. 

“We don’t know enough to start to try to regulate time, place and manner,” Venis said. 

McCauley said San Diego had to scale back projects because drone tech didn’t develop as quickly as expected, also citing money as a problem, as it was difficult for the city to attract industry when it told companies that they would need to do their own research and development. 

“It’s hard to say where the future is if we don’t know where the investment is coming from,” McCauley said. 

Riffing on the FAA’s “crawl, walk, run” approach with drones, Blanks said he thinks “we can crawl faster than we think we can.” Brock seemed to agree when he commented on some people’s reluctance to be first adopters. 

“If you’re concerned about being the first one, that ship has sailed,” Brock said. “So go ahead and dive in with both feet.”


Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.