Municipalities Prepare for Takeoff as Drone Popularity Soars

With drone prices plummeting, new concerns are rising over privacy, liability issues.

That little device hovering 100 feet overhead is poised to change how public entities conduct business in the future — especially in the area of risk management.

Drones — a catch-all term for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) — are being used increasingly for multiple tasks such as property inspection after storms, crime scene photographs and agricultural surveys, as well as in emergency situations where drone use reduces personnel risks.

The National League of Cities reports in its guide, Cities and Drones, that commercial drone usage will rise dramatically over the next five years, with an estimated 11 million commercial drones expected to be sold by 2020.

Why the predicted increase? New technology has reduced costs and made drones more accessible to public entities.

But a bigger reason is that the FAA put drone rules in effect in August 2016 after years of delay, said Bob Marinelli, senior risk control consultant for Trident Public Risk Solutions, a leader in the public sector insurance and risk management marketplace.

The new FAA rules will help cities move forward with their drone ordinances, he said, and allow more of the unmanned aerial vehicles to take flight.

New risks

But the soaring use of drones means municipalities will be faced with new risks. In turn, specialty risk insurers such as Trident are including drones in their product mix. The company recently began including a definition of UAS in its general liability, law enforcement liability and excess liability coverage.

Privacy is one of the concerns for community leaders, Marinelli said. A drone flown by a public entity to survey a park could unintentionally record activity in an adjacent private property, leaving that entity at risk of violating privacy laws. Additional complexity is added by the fluid nature of controlling federal, state and local regulations and statutes.

Some municipalities have added provisions prohibiting the use of drones for surveillance. Others have passed ordinances that prohibit them from flying over schools and other structures without an owner’s consent.

Liability is another crucial issue for municipalities, Marinelli said.

Drone liability can originate from:

  • Piloting error
  • Inadequate training of personnel controlling drones
  • Mechanical or technical failure of a drone and its operating system
  • Inappropriate use of a drone by an employee
  • Civil rights violations
  • Trespassing

Municipal rules

The National League of Cities suggests municipal drone ordinances should:

  • Focus on designating when and where drones may take off, operate and land.
  • Punish operators for flying drones in a reckless manner that endangers persons or property.
  • Create licensure requirements for recreational, private drone operators.

Local government should also have written policies and procedures for their use of UAS, including compliance with FAA rules .Once those ordinances are in place, it’s essential that all the parties within a municipality communicate more, Marinelli said.

“Laws put in place around drones will impact the entire municipality,” he said. “It could impact a school’s ability to, say, hire a drone to photograph a game. That use of a drone could be in violation of a municipality’s ordinance, and the school may not realize that.”

Learn how Trident Public Risk Solutions has public entities covered when it comes to risk management at www.argolimited.com/trident.

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