Preparing for Drones to Fly in Cities

October 29, 2019 - (5 min read)

Scooters, scoot over. Drones may be the next big technology to arrive in cities. There are nearly 1.3 million registered drones in the United States, and more than 116,000 registered drone operators. The technology is relatively cheap, business interest and recreational use is high, and all that’s holding major industry actors – UPS, Amazon, Uber to name a few – from launching at scale are the safety rules for drone flight.

Drones Today

Drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are regulated for aircraft safety and flight operations under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Many cities, municipalities, and states add their own regulations related to their areas of traditional authority. Traditional city and state authorities include:

  • planning and zoning for land-use,
  • determining take-off and landing locations for drones,
  • law enforcement operations and community safety, and
  • privacy policies and considerations.

Cities will not be on the sidelines as drones take flight. Updates to current regulations and safety decisions at FAA are in progress, but to get ahead of the next transportation technology shift, cities should prepare and consider their role to make the most of this new technology.

Local Community Use Cases

Many cities and neighborhoods are embracing changes in mobility opportunities, emergency response capabilities, delivery optimization and public safety – and drones may offer opportunities in these areas.  Of all the drone pilot certificates being issued, municipal users are a significant recipient of FAA-issued drone pilots including fire, police, engineers, economic development, and others. This is not surprising given the use cases:

  • In New York City, firefighters are able to take a bird’s eye view of fires before sending firefighters into dangerous burning buildings.
  • In Chula Vista, California, the police department just hit their 1,000-mission milestone for their “Drone as a First Response” program to assess situations, and officers had drones assist in 132 arrests.
  • In Nevada, drones are being used to do post-crash assessments on roads more quickly to document and clear crash scenes.

Cities are also taking the lead in an exclusive pilot with FAA by forming teams with local technology operators to inform future regulations for operations. In 2017, FAA launched the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to bring state, local, and tribal governments together with the private sector to address the potential for public-private partnerships. FAA chose only ten local and state project leaders to bring teams of drone manufacturers and aviation technology partners together in order to test emerging new rules and the capacity for a certification process. The cities included San Diego, CA, Reno, NV, Raleigh, NC, and Memphis, TN.

The pilots benefit from expedited processes for exemptions to FAA regulations, which leads to expanded use cases for issues such as flying beyond visual line of sight of operators. They collect data and specific information related to addressing local and regional concerns, such as the reasonable time, place and manner for flight operations, the distinctive operational challenges in complex environments, and the technical challenges of frequent flights.

Next Steps for Cities

As we look to the future, drones are very likely to play a new transport role within cities. To be proactive and prepared, here are just a few steps that cities can take today:

  1. Reach out to local drone operators and participate in a drone demonstration: Find out which city departments are using drones and discuss their process, operations and challenges locally. Many recreational flyers have local or state clubs where pilots participate in training. Relators, utilities and news outlets have begun to extensively use drones and may offer a unique business perspective. Discuss the future where more extensive operations are happening and what might be challenging in your community.
  2. Scan your local ordinances for necessary updates: Most cities have extensive zoning considerations for business operations and neighborhoods, including vertical zoning and land-use planning, that may be related to take-off and landing. Consider unlikely areas where drones could be a public safety risk, such a crowded event like a parade, football game or graduation ceremony.
  3. Consider your airspace and the critical ground assets to protect below it: Cities benefit from significant airport operations close to complex downtowns, often with tall buildings and heavy foot traffic, as well as business areas. Additionally, cities have critical infrastructure assets, including water treatment centers, utility poles, water towers and energy transmission stations that the public relies on that would be expensive if damaged.
  4. Check your local noise ordinances: From lawn mowers to overflight jet noise, cities are no strangers to noise ordinances and complaints of all types. As communities consider the noise of drones, adjustments may be needed.
  5. Stay tuned as the results of the pilots coming out: NLC anticipates several reports coming out as the IPP continues, industry releases new flight concepts, and the FAA fulfills directives from Congress. We expect to learn from city-led drone flights and the public safety responses to residents’ concerns.

Cities are the testbeds of innovation. Help secure your community’s future by staying up to date on the latest developments, partnering to learn best practices and being informed and ready to handle any challenges drones pose.

For more, read NLC’s research report “Cities and Drones”.

brittney2_ready.jpgAbout the Authors: Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.




Brenna Rivett small

Brenna Rivett is a principal research associate at NLC’s Center for City Solutions.