We’ve explored how various United States federal entities are looking to approach drone technology, and we’ve even gotten specific about how scientific agencies like NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) are actually utilizing UAVs right now. Contrary to what some might believe, there are plenty of people within government agencies that are excited about drones and trying to figure out the best way to leverage the technology.
That excitement isn’t limited to federal programs though, as there are countless departments at the state level in a similar position. Officials in these departments are trying to sort through the technical and legal challenges associated with using drones to impact how they approach their work. As the Administrator for the Division of Aeronautics at the Idaho Transportation Department, Mike Pape has found himself at the forefront of that conversation and process.
His department has taken an especially progressive approach to using these tools, which has turned him into the unofficial state expert on UAS ops, certification, sales, laws, regulations and more, even though Pape has and continues to work through these struggles just like everyone else. As he’s done so, he’s had to sort through exactly what it looks like for a Department of Transportation to utilize the technology as well as how the public views his departments’ use of a drone. His efforts have generated some key insights and takeaways around what it means for state agencies to use UAVs.
Cost Benefits of a Drone
The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) is a state transportation department tasked with performing construction projects, traffic monitoring and inspecting bridges and roads. Their commitment to implementing innovative business practices was a major reason they took such a close look at drone technology and began to work through how they might be able to leverage it across the department.
Pape works in the aeronautics division, which participates in airport planning, construction and maintenance projects. His department also offers safety education programs to pilots and leads search and rescue operations for missing civilian aircraft. They are currently studying all of their transportation programs to determine if/where UAS operations can assist them in fulfilling their missions. However, determining the cost-benefit of UAS investment has been their biggest challenge throughout this process.
“We’ve researched a dozen possible applications for UAS use and the enthusiasm to implement oftentimes exceeds the knowledge to make sound decisions for effective use,” Pape said. “How can you tell if a $40,000 investment in a quad copter for possible bridge inspections will pay off?”
Those sorts of questions around return on investment are ones that drone vendors and service providers within various industries are trying to answer for their clients, but it’s an issue of specificity. As drones become another tool in the toolkit for departments like the ITD, those questions around capital outlay and ROI will become more defined, but the exact numbers will vary from department to department.
For example, the ITD has identified photo/video as well as search & rescue as ideal fits for drone technology in their organization. Identifying the cost benefits of using a drone for either of those uses will be a bit different, and the numbers they come up with won’t necessarily be directly relevant to any other organization.
Sorting through questions around the value a drone can provide are just the beginning of a successful implementation process though.
Public Perception and Regulation
One concept that’s come up over and over for anyone looking to determine or establish how drones can be utilized by state agency administrators surrounds the privacy concerns that are expressed by members of the public. At an industry event last year, emergency response and search & rescue professionals mentioned that being able to educate the public around what it means for them to use UAVs has to be a priority, otherwise they’re apt to assume the worst and raise privacy concerns when they see one in the air.
“As a public agency, we have to be very transparent concerning UAS operations,” Pape continued. “It appears the general public is quite sensitive to this. As soon as UAS operations began, our state legislature began enacting laws and rules appealing to privacy advocates. I have had some UAS organizations show concern in operating in our state due to the political mood surrounding UAS’s. That’s a reputation we don’t want.”
Being able to avoid that reputation is about educating the public around what a drone is actually doing when departments like the ITD are using it. Many departments are just realizing how public perception plays a huge part in determining what they can or can’t do with a drone. That reaction can present an even bigger challenge than complying with drone regulation, which had until very recently always taken priority in the hearts and minds of operators.
Part 107 has been exceptionally helpful in clarifying operating rules for organizations like the IDT, but what the FAA has to say about where and how a drone can be flown isn’t the end of the conversation. Different states have different laws and regulations on the books regarding the commercial operation of a UAS, and any state administrator needs to be familiar with laws that already exist in their area.
Being able to comply with federal, state and even local regulations is an essential first step for any operator, but educating the public about what is and isn’t being done with a drone is also critical, especially for government entities. Once members of the public know that a drone is being used to perform things like inspections in a more efficient way, they’ll stop assuming the worst when they see a UAV.
Where to Begin
Under Part 107, taking a drone into the sky for commercial purposes is a process that’s more defined than ever, but what many individuals and organizations fail to realize is that sorting through the legal issues is just the first step of a much longer process. Simply knowing where and how to start with using drones can be a challenge, especially when it comes to determining whether to hire a service provider or pull UAV capabilities in-house.
At the ITD, Pape and his team determined that contracting UAS work to a vendor was the best route mainly because it allowed them to test their ideas quickly and cost effectively. Relying on service providers to simply test the waters is advice that’s come up in many different contexts. However, hiring service providers is not the only or even best way to discover how to best leverage the technology.
“Join a UAS organization or business and become fully involved,” Pape concluded. “Continue education, attend conferences, network with like-minded individuals and take some risks. Remember, if you spend one hour a day studying a subject in a chosen field, in five years you’ll be a national expert. We need those UAS experts!”
Future developments like increased UAV flight endurance and regulation that is further defined will contribute to an environment in which drones become a tool for state agencies of all types and sizes. The process to get there has already begun for many though, meaning that individuals and organizations as a whole need to make it a priority to take a close look at UAV technology to determine what can and will work for them.