Two months ago Palm Coast government unveiled its plan to develop a small fleet of drones and use them for public safety, for inspections of public infrastructure, for surveys and the like–but not, the city insisted, for any kind of surveillance or aerial code enforcement.
Today, the Flagler County Commission agreed to do likewise in a plan that would be centered on its emergency flight operations, and that may soon spread to include the Sheriff’s Office and the property appraiser. The county already has a drone and has been using it to inspect its communication towers. But it plans to spend some $20,000 to acquire a few more and have a corps of four people trained to fly them.
The county and Palm Coast are joining innumerable local and state governments in the use of drones (first developed for military and surveillance uses), which can be a far less expensive way to carry out what are now expensive operations that require endangering human beings on high structures or using helicopters and other aircraft to conduct surveys or searches.
But the technology, currently policed by the Federal Aviation Administration, is fraught with regulatory, legal and technological uncertainties created in part by the speed at which the technology is developing, its ease of access, its affordability, and its inherent ability to go where larger aircraft cannot–for good or ill.
“My thought would be to keep moving the ball forward on this, and to keep identifying where the usages would come from, and I’d like to see them come from public safety first,” Commission Chairman Don O’Brien said at the end of a half-hour discussion on the county’s direction at a workshop this afternoon.
The discussion was led by Flagler County Fire Rescue’s Jamie Burnsed, a battalion chief and drone enthusiast who owns his own drone and framed much of his presentation in what he’s learned of the technology. “I’ve been yelling drones at Chief Petito for a couple of years, and he’s been putting me off,” he said, referring to Fire Chief Don Petito, who was in the room.
Burnsed said it costs $800 an hour to operate Flagler County Fire Flight, the emergency helicopter. Flying a drone costs $30 to $50 an hour, a cost driven mostly by the salary of the person flying it, not the drone itself, whose one time capital expense is around $2,000. Drones would not replace the helicopter, however, Burnsed said. (Burnsed prefers to use the more technical term for drones: unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, because it makes them sound less like toys, he said, but the clunkier term isn’t catching on beyond trade magazines and government lingo.)
In Flagler, drones would be used to conduct building inspections, communication tower inspections, code enforcement (a signal difference with Palm Coast), land management and inventories, “incident mapping,” before or after an incident has occurred, monitoring flooding situations, monitoring the county’s dunes-repair project, and various emergencies, including fires. “Most any large incident we could monitor from an aerial standpoint,” Burnsed said, with live feeds easily accessible in ways that Fire Flight does not accommodate. To make the point, County Administrator Craig Coffey joked that he’d want to rig up Fire Flight with drone technology just to get those live feeds on various emergencies.
As with Palm Coast’s approach, Burnsed sought to put certain fears to rest. “You can’t climb up on a ladder and look over a fence to figure out a code violation, we can’t fly a drone over somebody’s house to find a code violation either, so there are limitations to that,” he said. “But there are still some uses as it relates to all of that.” When Palm Coast unveiled its program, it had already drafted a set of rules and was still refining them. No such rules were included in today’s county presentation.
Burnsed said the county plans to establish policies and “centralize” the use of drones at its flight operation, seek grant funding, and prepare the public about drones’ uses. “It’s not something I don’t think you just want to start putting in the air or throw it out there that we’re using them without letting the public know what we’re doing,” Burnsed said, “how we’re doing it, how we intend to use this technology for their benefit. I think a lot of items when people hear drones, they think nefarious things, of people peeking in windows and things like that, and obviously we don’t want to be tangled up in any of that.”
The sheriff’s office was not at the table today. “We’ve been looking at it and examining it, we’re going to keep examining it,” the sheriff’s Chief Mark Strobridge said. “We haven’t bought anything nor will we in the near future.” The agency’s focus will be on “how to respond to rogue operators,” he said, as well as on search and rescue. But that’s only when the agency settles on a sound approach. “One of the things you have to do is you have to do it right,” Strobridge said.
During the workshop, O’Brien cited a recent Wall Street Journal article that noted persistent difficulties in rule-making, as well as the FAA’s attempt to develop the sort of safety regulations that ensure that drones don’t fly into other aircraft–or that they aren’t used to criminal, violent ends.
“Federal authorities and advocates of unmanned aircraft agree that reliable remote-tracking methods are essential for rapid industry growth, in areas ranging from package deliveries to expanded industrial uses and video applications. Such features, expected to be a combination of hardware and software, would allow law-enforcement and national security officials to identify suspect or potentially hostile unmanned aircraft,” the newspaper reported in late November. “But despite extensive company-government cooperation—spurred by White House pledges to fast-track decisions—trade-association leaders now see final FAA regulatory action stretching past the end of the decade. Some experts say 2022 is more likely,” or three years behind earlier goals.
Commissioner Dave Sullivan today questioned where the current money for the program is coming from. The answer was not clear. Coffey said there is no money budgeted for drones, but that money is being found in small increments from various capital projects. “It wasn’t a major investment,” Coffey said of the drone used for tower inspections. He said money saved on a capital project could be used to “ease into the program.”
“We have no money budgeted right now” to buy drones, the administrator said. “It depends how far you get into it.” Every indication today was that the county is getting into it.
Steve Vanne says
It seems people that live here hate drones. Can’t wait to see all the commits on this. I myself been flying drones for some three years and have come across people that down right hate seeing me flying them and have said so to my face. So let the commits begin…
A waste of money and not necessary!!! Monkey see, monkey do. An invasion of privacy and a recipe for lawsuits. See that man at this meeting to the left rear of Coffey in the back wearing the dark suit, that’s Joe Mayer, he’s being paid more than $100,000 a year to be a puppet, and sit in board meetings. He needs to be fired along with Coffey and Hadeed. The BOCC needs to tighten their belts and stop the BS spending. Get our priorities in order!!
Concerned Citizen says
Starting to notice drones everywhere these days and it’s becoming obnoxious.
Governmental use of drones is going to open a Pandora’s box that will be hard to close. No good will come of this.
This afternoon around 2 or so there was a civilian hovering his drone just South of the pier on A1A. It was directly over the roadway and just over vehicle top height. It did have cameras so I’m not sure what he was trying to accomplish.
Drone operators need to learn respect. I saw several violations of restricted air space during 4th of July operations near the beach. Those are put in place to protect Fire Flight.
Please know that if you intrude on my property with a drone it will be dealt with.
UAV’s aka drones are very useful tools if handled correctly. I have owned one and use it for real estate purposes among other recreational uses, etc. And yes I have an FAA license.
We the people says
We the people don’t feel comfortable with this and are tired of this untrustworthy government not only law enforcement can stop us from shooting it down over our house
Big brother promises not to watch
Target Practice……….Bring them on and watch the fireworks !
Alphonse Abonte says
People do not like change or anything they do not understand. This falls into both categories. Most people look at this as infringement of privacy, until it saves some ones life. i.e.
People so resistant to change of any kind. Hey how about the horse and buggy vs car. People accepted that. There are laws in Fla as well as Federal for a drone operator to follow.
The original woody says
Fly them over Coffey’s house check out those fancy upgrades.
Concerned Citizen says
@ Steve Vanne
I personally don’t have an issue with drones or operators. As long as you follow the rules and are respectful. However a lot aren’t.
You don’t have any more business flying your drone over my property than you do wandering around my yard. Trespassing is trespassing.
Biggest pet peeve for me is the amount of drones you see during 4th of July at Flagler Beach. They restrict that airspace and prohibit Drones and Sky Lanterns to protect Fire Flight. They can’t see drones easily. If you are FAA licensed then you should know how important that is.
It just all boils down to respect.
Can't believe it says
SHAME ON HADEED!
From his bio at UF “Previously, he was in private practice, focusing on environmental conservation, growth management, historic preservation and scenic highway development. He formerly served as General Counsel for the National Scenic Byway for State Road A1A in Flagler and St. Johns Counties; as President of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation; and as general counsel to a variety of area organizations.”
This is NOT just a Hammock thing.
All of Flagler County should be enraged that this is committing them to 25 years of increased taxes, to support increased profits of a private business, one of whose principals is on the Planning Board. How much more “good ole’ boy” does it get?
Over taxed says
Buy drones and create a few more $100,000 positions to play games. Leave the drones in the hands of the military. There’s no good reason for local government to be using drones. A waste of tax dollars and continued evidence of mismanagement and waste.