Town officials consider drones for government use

Front Royal leaders stand divided on whether or not the town should use drones for public purposes.

Town Council on Monday discussed a proposal to buy an unmanned drone and to train and certify certain employees to operate the device. Town Manager Steve Burke explained the drone could help staff inspect facilities, assess damage to property and help boost tourism.

While a few council members expressed support for using drones as a tool, others voiced concerns about the devices potentially infringing on privacy rights.

Fire officials and the police department recently contracted with a private resident who owned a drone to use the device in helping with an investigation, Town Manager Steve Burke said. The contractor building the upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant also has a drone flyover each week to inspect the project site, Burke said.

“In review of those, we believe it would be advantageous for the inspection of our water towers,” Burke said. “Rather than having someone get harnessed up, have to climb up, we could simply use this device to go do a visual inspection, increase the frequency of these inspections.”

The town could use a drone to assess damage from a natural disaster, Burke said. The electrical department could use a drone to help perform some of its tasks. Lastly, the town could use a drone to record and photograph events held downtown and incorporate video and picture into the tourism-related advertising, Burke said.

The town has reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency requires “significant” permitting to obtain licenses that allow someone to operate a drone, Burke explained. Town employees in the Information Technology Department would need to obtain certification through the federal agency to operate a drone. The department could cover the cost of the certification in the educational portion of its budget, Burke said. The department budget also includes $700 to cover the price of a drone.

Councilman John Connelly asked Burke about the potential policies regarding the use of drones and what assurances could the town put in place that the devices would not infringe on privacy. The privacy issue might arise if a drone flies over a public event, Burke said. Todd Jones, director of the Information Technology Department, said the training required by the Federal Aviation Administration to use a drone covers privacy issues.

The town would need a separate permit to fly a drone over a public gathering, Burke said.

Mayor Timothy Darr voiced concerns.

“I do think you definitely gotta have strict guidance on these things,” Darr said. “I’m not totally against them. I know they’re very controversial at this point in time.”

Councilwoman Bébhinn Egger echoed Darr’s apprehension.

“I’m not real gung ho about this because, number one, I have concerns about flying it over public events like that,” Egger said.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt said he supported the idea of using drones as long as it does not require the town to hire more people to operate the devices.

“There is no intent to seek additional funding or additional staff under this effort,” Burke said.

In response to Egger’s question, adding a drone would not mean reducing staff in the departments that use the device.

Vice Mayor Hollis Tharpe showed support for the idea.

“I think it’s a good tool if used properly,” Tharpe said.

Councilman Bret Hrbek agreed with Tharpe.

The Federal Aviation Administration guidelines in place for public operators of drones govern their use by the military, federal and local governments and emergency services agencies. Nikolas Kubli, a safety inspector with the FAA in Richmond, said Tuesday that local governments must apply for and receive an exemption to operate drones for public purposes.

“The exemption is safety contract between the operator and the FAA,” Kubli said. “It’s just working out the details and how it’s going to be done safely.”

Drones can provide a benefit to the town, Kubli noted.

“It’s a great use for it,” Kubli said. “It makes things safer; helps them do their job better. It’s gotta be done in a certain way to make sure it’s all done safely.”

Per information on the FAA website, the agency issues a certificate of waiver or authorization that permits public agencies and organizations to operate a drone, for a particular purpose, in a specific area. The certificate allows an operator to use a defined block of airspace and includes special safety provisions unique to the proposed operation. The FAA issues such waivers for a specific period, up to two years in many cases. Common public uses today include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training, and other government operational missions.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or