Using Drones in Planning Practice
PAS Report 597
By Richard Stephens, Rob Dannenberg, Wendie Kellington, Patrick Sherman
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Drones — more technically known as unmanned or uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), or unmanned or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) — are quickly becoming indispensable tools for almost every discipline from agriculture to zoology. Extraordinary opportunities exist for integrating UAS within urban planning and design practice. Are you ready?
Using Drones in Planning Practice provides planners with the knowledge they need to determine whether UAS can enhance their planning practice and, if so, to take the first steps toward UAS implementation.
Drones offer tangible and intangible benefits for public- and private-sector planning organizations, expanding their capabilities for a wide range of activities that would be otherwise difficult, expensive, or impossible to carry out. This report offers the information planners need to integrate UAS into professional planning practice, including comprehensive discussions of technology and equipment, operational and administrative practices, and legal and regulatory considerations.
This report makes the case for how drones can help planners do their work more safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively. As planners prepare to navigate the ever-increasing technological and societal changes of the 21st century, drones should be a tool in the planning toolbox that all practitioners know when and how to use.
Drones — more technically known as unmanned or uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), or unmanned or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) — are quickly becoming indispensable tools for almost every discipline from agriculture to zoology. Extraordinary opportunities exist for integrating UAS with urban planning and design.
The array of UAS functions is expanding at an exponential rate, and the multifunctionality of drones makes them versatile, adaptable, and cost-effective tools. However, drone technology is currently unfamiliar to many planners and planning agencies, and the wide array of UAVs and the various sensors and equipment that are used to outfit them for different applications may seem intimidating. Likewise, the need to learn the federal regulatory requirements for drone use and understand the basic principles of safe and responsible UAS flight may seem overwhelming. However, many practitioners have taken the plunge, and once they master the initial learning curve they have found drones to be invaluable additions to their planning and design practices.
This PAS Report seeks to demystify UAS technology and use. Its goal is to provide planners with the foundational knowledge they need to evaluate the use of drones in their planning and design work and the technical information required to integrate UAS into their professional planning practices. It offers comprehensive discussions of relevant UAS topics, including technology and equipment, operational and administrative practices, and legal and regulatory considerations. The report provides the information necessary for both the public- and private-sector planning communities to integrate drones into current practice.
DRONES: AN IMPORTANT PLANNING TOOL
A drone is an aircraft without a pilot on board that is remotely controlled by a person on the ground. Drones have the potential to become indispensable urban planning and environmental management tools for many reasons.
Planners need high-quality, accurate, and timely data to analyze sites and make data-driven decisions. Drones offer the ability to collect a wider spectrum of environmental data than any other planning tool and document unique views through many types of imagery. Land use and development are three-dimensional in nature, and aerial photos taken by drones allow the average person to visualize an area much more clearly than a map or a photograph taken at ground level. Aerial videos add the fourth dimension — time — into the equation. And drone flights are relatively easy to plan and implement, allowing planners to schedule and perform data collection whenever it is needed.
A drone is a single tool that can be used to do many tasks. The same drone that creates a GIS map for a wildlife corridor might be used to evaluate the heat loss from a hospital rooftop or help in the search for and rescue of a lost child. Cameras, Lidar, and multispectral imaging sensors allow drones to collect many different types of data and serve many different functions. And they can do this very quickly: one drone pilot can document miles of roadway or acres of land in a matter of minutes that would otherwise take a full crew hours or even days, saving valuable personnel time and cost. Drones offer safe alternatives to collecting data in remote and potentially dangerous situations, such as disaster-stricken areas, tall structures, and nuclear power plants, without exposing personnel to health and safety risks.
UAS prices are continually decreasing with miniaturization and economies of scale. Today, users can purchase a high-quality drone with a high-resolution camera for around $1,500. For the public sector, this is a relatively inexpensive equipment investment for a technology with so many applications. For the private sector, drones can often pay for themselves through contract service fees within a few operations.
Designing a UAS program as an innovative effort to modernize and expand services can enhance personnel satisfaction and augment public engagement. Training and operations costs are relatively low and provide ancillary benefits, such as staff professional development opportunities and a progressive organizational image. In short, drones offer tangible and intangible benefits for publicand private-sector organizations, expanding their capabilities for a wide range of activities that would be otherwise difficult, expensive, or impossible to carry out.
WHAT'S IN A DRONE?
The hundreds of commercial drone models currently available and new models that arrive every year present a dizzying array of options for planners exploring the UAS universe for the first time.
Understanding UAS technology will help planners make appropriate and cost-effective choices when determining what is needed for the functionalities they are seeking. Chapter 2 of this PAS Report offers comprehensive guidance on drone equipment and technology, from the UAV itself and its software to the cameras, sensors, and other payloads it can carry.
THE WIDE WORLD OF DRONE APPLICATIONS
There are hundreds of drone applications spanning many fields — from agriculture and environmental science and management, to security and health and safety, to art and recreation, as well as urban planning, engineering, and architecture. Appendix C of this report offers a comprehensive list of drone capabilities, while Chapter 3 homes in on important planning-related applications.
As suggested above, one of the most important drone applications for planning is the gathering of aerial imagery. UAS aerial reconnaissance provides planners with situational awareness from an elevated viewpoint that is often more comprehensive than one at ground level. The visual and other data drones collect can be used to generate products such as georectified orthomosaics, digital surface models, 3-D models, and aerial videos illustrating time and motion. GIS mapping and modeling using the high-quality data provided by drones offers powerful applications for land-use planning.
Drone imagery, both photo and video, can also be used to create powerful visualizations for community engagement. The creation of compelling displays and materials for public meetings and hearings can help residents and stakeholders better envision the impacts and outcomes of plans and projects. Videos can be invaluable additions to project websites and online surveys, and they enhance the in-person meeting experience. Drone imagery and video can make public input methods more engaging, tactile, entertaining, accessible, and comprehensible, resulting in better community participation and improved project outcomes.
Drones can be used to carry out a range of planning-related activities and functions, including project management and construction documentation, transportation system and traffic monitoring and analysis, environmental analysis and management, disaster response and recovery, infrastructure inspection, and surveying. Drones offer jurisdictions both small and large a multipurpose tool for a reasonable price to efficiently and effectively augment staff time and resources.
GETTING STARTED WITH DRONES
Moving from interest in drone use to implementation of a drone program may seem a formidable step. Chapter 4 of this PAS Report offers practical guidance in how to carefully think through the process and determine the best way to move forward.
One way to explore UAS use is to start by hiring a consultant for a pilot project or a limited scope of services. Chapter 4 walks readers through how to contract for UAS services, from developing a scope of work and writing an RFP to evaluating proposals and selecting and working with a consultant.
Ready to take the plunge and develop an in-house program? Chapter 4 also discusses the issues planners will need to consider when setting up a UAS program: structure, budget, equipment, staffing and training, policies and procedures, public relations, and data management. And it offers a straightforward process model for putting it all together.
Finally, before integrating drones into planning practice, planners must have a solid understanding of how they can and cannot be used. Chapter 5 maps out the regulatory and legal landscape for drone use by public-sector and private-sector planners. It offers a plain-language description of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules governing drone use with insights as to their interpretation and real-world application, and it delves into how to become an FAA-certified Remote Pilot in Command. Finally, it explains the intersections of federal, state, and local regulations for UAS, and describes trespass, nuisance, and privacy considerations for safe and responsible drone operations.
DRONES FOR THE 21ST-CENTURY PLANNER
UAS technology is not new, but as this PAS Report shows, it is proving to be increasingly relevant as a planning tool. The benefits drones can provide should be clear to any planner who intends to add this technology to their toolbox.
Planners help communities navigate change and prepare for an uncertain future. For planners to continue spearheading this process, keep up with the pace of change, and stay relevant in the 21st century, agility and technological advancement are becoming ever more important. Using drones in their work enables planners to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently: they will not just be better able to respond to a changing world, they will be prepared before disruptions happen. Upskilling planners to better understand and use new technologies and tools will be crucial to raise the voice of planning in the future.
The applications for UAS are substantial and growing. Drones represent a highly useful technology that can help planners do their work more safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively. The information and guidance in this PAS Report provides planners with the knowledge they need to determine whether UAS can enhance their planning practice and, if so, to take the first steps toward UAS implementation. As planners prepare to navigate the ever-increasing technological and societal changes of the 21st century, drones should be a tool in the planning toolbox that all practitioners know when and how to use.
About the Authors
Ric Stephens is a senior aviation planner for NV5 responsible for master planning of airport, heliport, vertiport, eco-district, and eco-industrial developments. He has over 40 years of experience in aviation, including three decades of aerial photography for urban planning projects, post-disaster evaluation, construction management, agricultural monitoring, and many other applications.
Rob Dannenberg has been at the leading edge of key practical applications and program development for commercial UAVs for over eight years. As an industry leader and subject matter expert for program development he is internationally recognized as a UAS risk mitigation and safety expert.
Wendie Kellington has been practicing law since 1983. She is a preeminent, A-rated attorney by Martindale-Hubbell and is nationally renowned for her expertise in land-use law and the development of UAS policy. She is a regular presenter at the American Bar Association (ABA) Land Use Institute and has written extensively on land-use issues as well as drones in both professional and popular journals and magazines.
Patrick Sherman is a pioneer in the UAS industry, with more than 10 years of experience as a drone pilot. An internationally recognized expert on UAS operations and technology, he is the author of more than 150 published articles on the subject. He was recognized as a "Drone Instructor of the Year" by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Drones
What Is a Drone?
Why Planners Should Use Drones
About This Report
Chapter 2: UAS Equipment and Technology
UAS Safety Features
Chapter 3: UAS Applications for Planning
UAS Planning Applications
Planning-Adjacent UAS Applications
UAS Applications For Different Planning Contexts
Chapter 4: Implementing UAS Operations
In-House or Consultant?
Contracting With a UAS Consultant
Developing an In-House UAS Program
In-House Drone Programs for Private-Sector Planners
Chapter 5: UAS Regulatory and Legal Considerations
Commercial Versus Recreational Operations
Federal UAS Regulations
Federal Versus State and Local Regulations
Temporary Flight Restrictions
Additional Legal Considerations for UAS Operations
Chapter 6: The Future of Planning and Drones
UAS Trends and Implications for Planning
Preparing for a Smarter Future
Appendix A: UAS Abbreviations
Appendix B: UAS Glossary
Appendix C: UAS Applications
Appendix D: Model UAS Safety Code
Appendix E: Model UAS Operations Manual