worker with drone (Budimir Jevtic/Shutterstock.com)

Is it time to buy a drone?

From their beginnings as tech toys, small drones have evolved into a dependable tool for agencies at all levels of government. Benefits of unmanned aerial systems include greater efficiency, cost savings and increased safety for government workers when drones reach places and do jobs that could endanger humans. Many officials, however, are still figuring out how to navigate this fairly new technology.

To be accurate, the government has been using unmanned aircraft since the 1930s, said Chris Hewlett, who leads Deloitte’s drones unit, but now small, lightweight, ready-to-use devices not unlike the ones advertised in Amazon’s daily deals list are finding their way into government use in nontraditional ways.

“If you think about the way that many of our aerospace and defense companies operate, they make something because there’s a need," Hewlett said.  "But in this particular technology, the way it’s advanced, it’s very unique. It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

Once drones became available, agencies realized they could integrate them into their current processes to gain efficiencies. "That’s a key statement there," he said. "It wasn’t, ‘We have a key problem doing this. We’re looking to see if we can make our process better.’”

That’s one reason why figuring out the best way to use drones can be tricky. There are several factors to consider, Hewlett said, including cybersecurity and safety. For one, the Federal Aviation Administration has regulations on when commercial and government entities can fly small UAS, which it defines as those that weigh less than 55 pounds. It’s also critical that these systems not interfere with airspace where manned aircraft may be flying or endanger people on the ground.

Additionally, “when you’re talking about drones, you’re talking about the challenge of cybersecurity, data control and then telemetry information,” Hewlett said. Many drones made overseas may communicate with a server in a foreign country to get telemetry and firmware updates they need to operate. That means a government laptop could be communicating with a foreign server, he said, and that the telemetry data on where the drone has been flying could be downloaded to a server in that home country.

Despite the regulations and security concerns, opportunities for using drones are seemingly limitless. At the federal level, for instance, the Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration supported the development of first-person vision googles to guide drones in bridge inspection. Workers wear goggles connected to drones that fly around a bridge and send back images that the worker sees in the goggles.

This effort trickles down to state and local governments, which need to maintain it the infrastructure they own. Minnesota, for example, has been experimenting with drones since 2015 to scan bridges and their hard-to-access areas.  The Georgia Department of Transportation used drones for bridge inspections after Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, and the Kansas Department of Transportation (one of 10 that the federal DOT tapped to participate in its UAS Integration Pilot Program) also is exploring using drones for infrastructure inspection.

Public-safety organizations are also significant drone users. In May 2018, the Center for the Study of Drones at Bard College estimated that at least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency services agencies nationwide have acquired drones, and that the number of public-safety agencies with drones rose by 82 percent between 2017 and 2018.

Public-safety officials use drones for search and rescue, crime scene and accident investigation, tactical maneuvers by SWAT team members, locating fleeing suspects and fire response.

Other state and local agencies have sent drones to snap aerial imagery, as Murfreesboro, Tenn., officials are doing, and to monitor highway traffic, a project of the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Even as more agencies adopt drone technology, their deployment will require investment beyond the purchase of the device and software.  

“One obvious challenge is public perception -- the messaging around drone operations,” said Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of Drones at Bard College. “You have to develop a messaging campaign to inform the public about how this new technology will be used today and into the future, and ideally publish standard operating procedures for using these systems.”

Agencies must also consider costs -- not just of acquiring the drones themselves but also storing and maintaining them and training people to operate them, he added.

Before an agency acquires and deploys a drone, officials must determine what they want to use it for, set data and telemetry security policies and consider how weather conditions will affect use cases because drones can’t fly in rain or extreme cold.

“Define what the problem is first and see if there’s an application that’s available or a technology that’s available that we can use to solve that situation instead of just saying, ‘I have this technology. Let’s see how many problems I can solve with it,’” Hewlett said.

Those problems could be myriad. For example, military needs differ greatly from those of a rural public-safety department, which might have a different problem set than an urban police department or suburban fire department, Gettinger said. “Agencies acquire drones for different reasons and deploy them for different reasons, but essentially what it comes down to is having that eye in the sky, having that capability to have that aerial picture,” he said. “There’s going to be different approaches and different standard operating procedures for different environments, but I think the demand, the reason why these agencies are flying drones, is pretty consistent.”

Although drone use is growing -- the Pentagon’s drone budget of about $8.6 billion for fiscal 2019 is the largest the drone center has seen -- it’s still an emerging area, Gettinger and Hewlett said.

“Where we’re at right now is in the nascent discovery phase of what kind of solutions can we bring to some of the problems that we have,” Hewlett said.

“Perhaps something we’re going to start seeing is greater moving away from the wow factor of having a drone in your inventory to really addressing ways in which the technology can be put to good use,” Gettinger said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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