Indiana Chapter - American Planning Association

Planning at Another Level

Posted on January 5th, by Katie Bannon in Technology. No Comments

By Mark McCormack, Southern Region Representative

In an earlier blog entry this year, I referenced some of the uses of social media related to the planning profession—a potential tool that most of us are familiar with but don’t necessarily use. In this submission, I’d like to discuss another, newer potential tool in the planner’s toolbox: the use of aerial drone technologies.



To begin a conversation about (aerial) drones, a few background items should be quickly referenced to understand and appreciate how they may be used by communities and their various officials and staff (including planners). The first obvious questions to ask are: what exactly are drones and where do they come from? According to International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is also referred to as an unpiloted aerial vehicle and a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Although the history of drones dates back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, their deployment and development history are significantly linked with military use and applications. From 1959 to the Gulf War in the early 1990’s, the U.S. military utilized drones in a limited manner to engage in military exercises and to conduct surveillance of targeted areas that would not lead to the loss of pilot lives. Following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the use of drones expanded on all fronts—with much broader applications involving surveillance, emergency service situations, finding / locating people (for any purpose), etc. being incorporated for every day use.

In the past 4-5 years, the uses and applications related to drones have proliferated. As the uses and number of drones have increased, so have government controls. In general, non-commercial, limited size drones (under 55 lbs.) can be flown under the voluntary safety standards of the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Form Act of 2012 sets a deadline of September 30, 2015 for the agency to establish regulations to allow the use of commercial drones. In the meantime, the FAA claims it is illegal to operate commercial unmanned aerial vehicles, but approves non-commercial flights under 400 feet if they follow Advisory Circular 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards, published in 1981 (which is currently being litigated extensively).

*See Wikipedia’s section on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

As of August 2013, commercial (drone) licenses were granted on a case-by-case basis, subject to approval by the FAA. At that time, the agency expected that within five years after it unveils a regulatory framework for drones weighing 55 pounds or less, there will be 7,500 such devices in the air.

Planning Applications

Given the brief background and the very nature of what drones / unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are, there are a number of potential (legitimate) uses for planners and their communities. (There are also a number of challenges and potential obstacles for either employing or planning for others to use these technologies in our communities—but that is another discussion for another day.) In September of this year, in the Cincinnati Enquirer, I read about Hamilton County’s propositions and discussions related to the use of drones (which can be referenced here…)—which led me to think about our local community’s potential uses, and potential cost-savings and efficiencies, related to these technologies. Some of the uses that came to mind were:

  • Emergency Services—for hazardous situations, accidents, locating people, etc.
  • Inspections & Maintenance—including buildings, roads, utilities, construction sites and development areas, ordinance enforcement issues
  • Analysis—for comparative purposes such as assessment of land uses and improvements
  • Aerial Photography—for drones equipped with cameras
Taking Off

As of November 2014, one can find drones online for sale for less than $100 up to over $10,000, depending on the size and type of the mechanical equipment and technological outfitting one is seeking. As mentioned earlier, in little more than a year, there is slated to be a whole new set of rules governing the use of (at least) commercial drones. At present, planners and our communities may not be able to utilize these technologies in a complete manner—but that, like everything else, is about to change and it is one more thing for which we should be prepared.

An interesting PBS article from April of 2013 for those who may be interested:

How Are Drones Used in the U.S.?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *