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City Council Exploring Use of Drones in Facade Inspections

In a move that could revolutionize the way buildings are maintained in New York City, the City Council has ordered the Department of Buildings (DOB) to study the safety and feasibility of permitting drones to conduct facade inspections. Under the Facade Inspection and Safety Program, formerly known as Local Law 11, owners of all buildings over six stories tall must conduct a facade inspection and make needed repairs every five years. For co-op and condo boards, it’s a major ongoing expense.


The measure was sponsored by three Democrats – Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, Ben Kallos of Manhattan and Paul Vallone of Queens – and it orders the DOB to determine whether the flying of drones would conflict with any rules by city agencies or the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and if drones have the potential to increase public safety and reduce the need for sidewalk sheds. The DOB’s report to the council was due June 30 but has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.


Many cities in the United States allow the use of drones for building inspections and other purposes, provided the operators have approval from the FAA. “The most notable exception is really New York,” says Brett Rieger, an architect and licensed drone pilot at RAND Engineering & Architecture. “For now, our drone team is doing jobs in the outer boroughs and outside the city. We have two licensed drone pilots and one visual observer. Our main goal right now is to champion new laws for drone usage in New York City.”


One objection to the use of drones has nothing to do with safety. “The most basic concern about drones is that it’s up in the sky or in front of my window spying,” Rieger says. As for safety: “From the city’s perspective, a drone in the wrong hands could be used as a weapon or it could fall from the sky, hitting people, which is possible if they are operated by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”


Current New York City regulations prohibit aircraft from taking off and landing in the five boroughs, except at public and private airports, heliports, seaplane bases and in emergencies. And FAA airport regulations ban aircraft from most of the five boroughs, with the exception of Lower Manhattan, the northern edge of the Bronx, the western half of Brooklyn and most of Staten Island.


“The new law needs to address what a drone can safely do,” Rieger says. “There would be a lot of advantages for buildings that need facade inspections.”

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