Johnson City adopts drone policy for city employees

Zach Vance • Jan 18, 2018 at 11:03 PM

The City of Johnson City is hovering into the 21st century.

At Thursday’s City Commission meeting, City Manager Pete Peterson announced the adoption of guidelines allowing certain city employees to use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to complete specific job duties, such as GIS mapping and police surveillance.

“You can use them at a fire scene or a crime scene to get an overhead view. We’ll use them a lot for surveying purposes and GIS (mapping). What used to take a three-man survey crew, now we can probably do with a GPS unit and one (drone) pilot. And what used to take three or four days to do, we can probably knock it out in half a day,” Peterson said.

“We will be a much more efficient organization, much more cost-effective and turn work products around quicker with the use of this technology ... It’s a great example of how technology has evolved, allowing us to do more at a reduced cost.”

For the past several months, an ad hoc committee with members from the Information Technology, Police, Fire and Emergency Management departments, began forming specific drone guidelines to ensure city employees who use drones follow current state, federal and Federal Aviation Administration laws.

A memo from Peterson to commissioners said the ad hoc committee consulted the Law Firm of James Mackler about the guidelines. Mackler, a former U.S. Senate candidate, is widely recognized for his knowledge of drone laws.

“We’ve got to meet certain insurance requirements and operating and maintenance requirements. (The) storage of data collected by the (drone),” Peterson said. “We’ve got to deal with privacy issues (and) public records requests. There is a lot of regulation to this, so we needed to get a very clear policy established before we started flying these things.”

Johnson City already employees two people who are fully licensed as remote pilots for small unmanned aircraft systems: Officer Stephen Crow and Link Elmore, a geospatial project manager who works in Development Services. 

FAA regulations make distinctions between civilian drone operators, who are considered hobbyists, and commercial and government operators. The latter group is required to pass a written exam, but no flying exercise, to obtain a license.

“It’s like a drivers license test and if you don’t study for it, you’re going to fail,” Elmore said about taking the drone licensing test.

Although the state does fund and produces aerial base mapping every few years, Elmore said his department can now use a drone to gather accurate, up-to-date aerial imagery on demand.

In another example, Police Chief Mark Sirois said his department can use the drone to search for missing people, as some drones come equipped with thermal heat detectors.

But don’t expect to see Elmore or Crow out flying a drone around town anytime soon, at least as long as winter is around.

“The weather is really not favorable for us to fly. The batteries don’t like to be out in the cold and the propellers don’t like to be out in the snow. So we’ll have to wait until warmer weather,” Elmore said.

“I know one of the first places I want to (fly) is Founders Park, because our imagery that we have for Founders is before it was redone so beautifully. We want to have our imagery reflect the new work that’s been done out there.”

Johnson City currently owns one drone, a DJI Inspire 1 Pro, which is listed on the manufacturers’ website for $1,999 and includes a 4K camera with HD video capabilities.

Peterson said the city will likely wait to see how effective the drone program is before investing in more drones.

“We’ll probably see how the utilization of this one goes first. I could see us getting a second one in case this one goes down,” Peterson said.

As a current member of BrightRidge’s Board of Directors, Commissioner Jenny Brock said she’s already seen the benefits of the power company’s investment in a drone fleet to inspect power lines and poles that might otherwise be inaccessible.

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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