Since late last month, the city of Boston has been doing a hilarious impression of Hoth. Much like that opening sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, it’s stupid cold, everyone is pissed, and nothing is working. It’s so bad, people are beginning to call for federal disaster relief funds. So while we bitch and moan about unclear streets and a public transportation system older than Sam Adams himself, we are using everything at our disposal to deal with this snow – including drones of questionable legality.
Last weekend The Boston Globe reported that the City of Somerville, MA had paid a local aerial drone videography company $1,500 to survey city buildings for snow issues. Somerville Mayor’s chief of staff, Joseph Curatone, explained that the drones fly “above the city buildings and then send us video they capture as it comes in, almost on a real-time basis.”
The service provider, AboveSummit said on the company blog, “We were called up by the City of Somerville to visually inspect 30 at-risk public properties for excess snow. After completing 13 buildings in an afternoon, there was a lot of interest from news organizations about how drones were being used to help the city.”
And why wouldn’t there be? Both drones and the weather in the northeast are in the news pretty much every day. It’s the perfect mashup of two hot button issues.
Except if there is one drone practice the FAA has adamantly opposed, it’s using drones for commercial purposes. The FAA has been extremely vocal about the fact that receiving financial compensation for flying a drone is in violation of the administration’s policy… which is exactly what happened in Somerville.
Not only did a municipality pay a private company to fly their drones, but everyone involved was very open about it. On top of this, plenty of people were talking about it. Besides the Boston Globe, local branches of CBS, NBC, and NECN picked up on the story.
It even got some high profile attention on Twitter from iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner.
Don’t tell them the NPRM is not in effect yet… Drones to Inspect Snow-Covered Roofs in Somerville, Mass. | NECN http://t.co/QDSWj27q9u
— Helen Greiner (@helengreiner) February 21, 2015
Ms. Greiner brings up a good point – the FAA outlined a proposal for allowing commercial drones to take flight in its recently published Notice for Proposed Rulemaking, but official rules are at least a year away. So it is safe to say the city of Somerville and AboveSummit were flying in spite of the FAA’s wishes.
Of course, they are far from alone, hundreds of companies are taking flight all over the country. Some have received cease and desist letters from the FAA while others have avoided such attention by keeping their operations quiet.
And yet, the administration has not said a word about the case in Somerville.
It may be that the FAA doesn’t want to or doesn’t have the resources to get involved. Or perhaps they just know it’s the right thing to do so they are letting it slide. Or it could simply be that they are just smart enough to know that, at this point, lecturing Bostonians about snow removal is like poking a bear that should be sleeping but had to wake up early to shovel out a parking space.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com