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Drone Operator Group to Address Challenges in Cities

A new multidisciplinary group is hoping to start a conversation that can answer questions about new concerns specific to using drones in the nation's most densely populated metropolitan areas.

Drone Flying
What should you do if someone is operating a drone near you? Where should you move? Should you be a certain number of feet away from the machine?

These are the sort of questions that police, firefighters and other stakeholders hope to clarify as part of the Major Cities Working Group, a new initiative from the DRONERESPONDERS program. The Major Cities Working Group launched during the Drone Journalism Leadership Summit in New York last month. The group was created to drive dialog between different drone users who may face similar issues when operating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in densely populated cities, said Christopher Todd, executive director of the Airborne International Response Team, the nonprofit responsible for DRONERESPONDERS. 

Richard Fields, administrative section chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department, said the Major Cities Working Group should develop a common understanding of what should happen when a drone is used for an emergency. He likened this need to the simple procedure that drivers are expected to follow when they see or hear an ambulance or firetruck — that is, pull over to the right. Taking this example further, Fields pointed out that public safety must be prepared for when people don’t follow the rules.

“Everybody doesn’t [pull over to the right],” Fields said. “Some people stop right in front of you. Some people keep driving. Some people don’t hear you coming. Some people panic and don’t know what to do, and those are all things that we are used to dealing with and overcoming in how we operate [emergency automobiles]. We have no idea what that looks like in the airspace [with drones].”

Public safety faces numerous other challenges when operating drones in big cities, Fields said. Besides pedestrian safety, there are infrastructure-related concerns. Not only does one have to account for a high number of buildings in a big city, but the buildings themselves, due to their construction materials, can interrupt GPS and radio signals, as well as interfere with line of sight. 

"This equipment relies heavily on GPS signals, and when you're in an area like Times Square or Midtown Manhattan, if you're ever driven using your phone's GPS, your phone's GPS thinks that you're two blocks away from where you actually are," said Deepu John, a New York City Police Department detective. "So similar problems occur with drones." 

Todd said drone users also have to be aware of “micro atmospheres” that result from buildings being in the sun all day. Additionally, there are “wind canyons” between structures that could impact drone usage. 

“I think anybody who has ever walked down Broadway in New York City … has gotten hit in the face on a windy day by some really, really strong air,” he said.

Then there’s the question of how air traffic will be regulated. Fields said it will be important to prioritize altitude, as public safety and non-public safety organizations could have equally important reasons to fly drones in the same urban airspace. For instance, some journalists utilize drones to get pictures and video. In fact, the National Press Photographers Association is now one of the partners of DRONERESPONDERS. 

“[Journalists] have a need,” Fields said. “They want to capture the story. How do they work with public safety so that they’re not impeding our mission while still trying to get what they deem as important? How do we build a relationship with them that serves the greater good?”

Todd added that in addition to facilitating dialog between various types of organizations, the Major Cities Working Group might consider creating subgroups so that different types of organizations can drill down into use cases that aren’t relevant to all drone users. 

Another major consideration for drone usage has less to do with rules and procedures and more to do with politics. Todd said drone operators are likelier to run into watchdog groups in large urban settings as opposed to smaller communities. 

John said the NYC police commissioner formed a working group to engage with advocacy groups as part of the rollout for the department's drone program. While John doesn't think an agency is ever going to get "a full, glowing endorsement" from such groups, he cited the importance of raising awareness about a department's specific intentions for drones. 

Fields recounted an experience his organization had with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Los Angeles. Fields’ department proactively sought ACLU’s opinion about its drone policy. 

“[The ACLU] returned a scathing report,” Fields said. “While they applauded us for our efforts, they showed us where our policy still had a bunch of holes and gaps for possible misuse. And what we did was took those concerns and almost verbatim added them to our policy.”

It’s important for public safety to be transparent and responsible with emerging technology, even if the truth may sting. On the flipside, Fields also sees the Major Cities Working Group as power in numbers when it comes to appealing to legislators. Lawmakers are more likely to listen to reason about drones if they hear voices from various sources, including fire, police, public works and photojournalists. The Major Cities Working Group can serve as such a collective voice. 

Todd recalled when the use of helicopters years ago brought groups like public safety and the media together. He argued that drones have achieved a similar goal. 

“Whether you’re a police officer or a firefighter or a member of the news media, drones are becoming a commonality that everybody can kind of understand each other about,” Todd said.

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.