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Local governments researching drones to improve service, save money

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The Cumberland County planning department played host to a drone workshop and demonstration on May 21.
The Cumberland County planning department played host to a drone workshop and demonstration on May 21. - (Photo / )

Who says government cannot be run like a business and operate more efficiently?

A first-of-its-kind event held in Cumberland County last week proved that local governments are growing increasingly interested in the use of technology to speed up certain tasks to save money.

Led by a Carlisle drone services company, the event focused on potential municipal uses for drones, including building inspections, property surveying and help first responders traveling to traffic accidents and crime scenes, to name a few.

“You’re only limited (on use) by your imagination,” Christopher Ryan, owner of ACE Drone Services LLC, told a room of municipal officials who gathered in Carlisle from all parts of Cumberland County.

Officials spent time inside learning about the versatility of drones before heading outside of the county’s Allen Road facility for a live demonstration, where Ryan flew several models up as high as 400 feet.

While drones have been widely adopted this decade by businesses, especially construction-related firms and real estate professionals to monitor construction progress and market properties available for sale, drone use by local governments is still fairly limited.

Many municipalities see the value in using drones to help police search for missing people or fugitives and help firefighters assess building fires. In those emergency situations, a drone can save time and ultimately lives.

But there also are public safety concerns about drones falling out of the sky and injuring people, invasion of privacy lawsuits and the cost of buying and maintaining drones, according to lawyers and trade groups who represent municipalities.

County potential

Christopher Ryan, owner of  Carlisle-based Ace Drone Services LLC led a drone workshop and demonstration May 21, hosted by the Cumberland County planning department. In foreground, is a large drone used for agricultural spraying.
Christopher Ryan, owner of  Carlisle-based Ace Drone Services LLC led a drone workshop and demonstration May 21, hosted by the Cumberland County planning department. In foreground, is a large drone used for agricultural spraying. - ()

Kirk Stoner, Cumberland County’s planning director and organizer of the event, said cost and drone usage are two things the county is wrestling with as it researches a future drone purchase.

Stoner said it could be more cost effective to hire experts such as Ryan to fly drones for specific projects, rather than own a drone and have it sit idle for long periods of time. There is some concern that the rapid pace of technology will make current drone models obsolete in a few years, increasing the cost for local governments to buy and repair equipment.

Ryan understands the hesitancy. His company, which sells and repairs drones, still makes most of its money flying for other people, including contractors and insurance companies. ACE also is expanding into crop monitoring and spraying services for farmers.

This county’s educational event was a first, he said. “I’m hoping to do more of it.”

Cumberland County may soon dip its toe into drones, Stoner said.

He is looking at sharing the cost of buying a drone with other county departments who, like the planning department, could use the unmanned aerial vehicles for staff projects that occur once a year.

County planning, for example, needs to inspect preserved farms annually for any property changes. Currently, that process is done manually by staff who drive to each farm. With about 160 farms in the preservation program, that inspection process can take about nine weeks, Stoner said.

By sending up a drone to take aerial photographs, he believes that project could be done in a matter of days and allow county staff to focus on other projects.

A drone also could help speed up inspections for county-owned bridges that may need to be repaired or replaced, Stoner said. He sees potential for drones to help local governments with flood monitoring along creeks, which could help speed up evacuation efforts.

Other counties across Pennsylvania already are buying drones.

“It’s no different than the private sector if the technology can be used to make a county more efficient and effective,” said Keith Wentz, risk management and underwriting manager for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Wentz said at least eight of the association’s members are flying drones, while others are likely looking into buying one. Most existing owners are using the drones for emergency purposes, farmland monitoring or to keep an eye on dam and reservoir conditions, Wentz said. “I think it started out as a law enforcement tool, but it has expanded out.”

Municipal officials in attendance for last week’s demonstration said they see many of the benefits, but they are not quite ready to pull the trigger on buying.

Larry Hinkle, the code enforcement and zoning officer for North Newton Township in western Cumberland County, said the drones would come in handy for many municipalities with small staffs. He believes North Newton and other municipalities in western Cumberland County could benefit during natural disasters and damage assessments that need to be done.

“We’ve had tornadoes in the past,” he said. “It would make it a lot easier.”

Tim Kirk, vice president of claims for Swatara Township-based Millers Mutual, agrees that drones should make damage assessment and insurance claims easier. Millers started using its own drone this year.

In addition to speed, drones also can improve safety for employees that assess damage situations, Kirk said. Safety is paramount for the regional commercial property and casualty insurer, he said, especially when it comes to checking on multi-story apartment buildings with roof damage.

“It’s a big value for me,” he said. “It makes the claims adjuster more efficient and it makes the job a little safer.”

Diverse uses, growing interest

And drones continue to improve in terms of accuracy thanks to growing infrared capabilities.

Hinkle believes municipalities could use the drones to help identify the location of septic systems that fail.

Deborah Ealer, township manager in North Middleton Township near Carlisle, said she could see value in using the drones to point out other infrastructure problems such as water line breaks or to track other underground systems for improved maintenance.

Landscape architect and civil engineer Ed Black, who also is a Lower Allen Township commissioner, expressed interest in using drones for site analysis work done by his firm for commercial building projects. He also said it might be a good tool for the township on sidewalk inspections and tree conservation efforts.

In a fast-growing county like Cumberland County, aerial photography captured by drones also could expedite future land planning efforts and help local governments review new development plans.

“I think it’s slowly gaining momentum among municipalities,” said attorney J. Stephen Feinour, a partner with Harrisburg-based Nauman Smith, who represents many municipal clients. “Larger cities like Philly and Pittsburgh either have drones in place or they are considering.”

Indeed, a growing number of people also are getting licensed to fly drones, according to Ryan, who also runs training courses in Carlisle every two weeks. So finding people to fly drones is getting easier.

Ryan has had about 135 students so far. He has hired some as pilots for his company, while others are using the training to expand their photography services or support other companies with aerial photography and video needs.

He believes interest in flying drones will grow. And more competition could expand the list of possible drone services for both the public and private sector.

“It’s a great tool to have, whether it’s yours or not,” said Bob Anspach, associate director of insurance services for the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin and Cumberland counties. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal.

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