Boulder may in the near future make use of drones to advance various municipal interests, ranging from search-and-rescue efforts to 3-D modeling to inform infrastructure design.
But officials are first collecting public input before moving ahead with the program.
A survey is posted on the city’s site now, soliciting feedback on 22 different potential ways for Boulder to use unmanned aircraft systems.
There is some, though not too much, precedent for local governments using drones. In Austin, Texas, fire crews use them to sniff out hot spots. In Dallas, they’re used to inspect water utilities. In Mesa County in Colorado, they’re tools for public safety.
But rollouts of these programs haven’t always been smooth, said Julia Richman, the city’s first “chief innovation and analytics officer,” who cited examples in Seattle and Los Angeles, where municipal drone programs have struggled due to varying levels of mistrust from the public.
Specifically, many citizens worry about governments potentially using drones to spy on citizens.
“We’re not interested in spying on people and we don’t have any intention of doing that,” said Richman, who is also serving the city as interim chief information officer, adding, “We want to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone’s comfortable with these technologies, and there are consequences of using them.
“There’s been a really diverse set of municipal experiences using this tool,” she continued. “We want to understand not only what’s happening in other cities, but really start to define for ourselves how we might use this technology.
“The world is moving really fast from a technological standpoint, and not only do we want to understand what our options are, but what we don’t want to use (drones) for.”
The information gathered in the survey will be used during a drafting, by Richman and other staff members, of an internal policy on use of drones. The feedback won’t feed into an official law for the City Council to review and staff has no firm plans yet as to when Boulder might start deploying drones, and in what numbers.
But, as the 22 different examples in the survey indicate, the possibilities are numerous. The city has floated the idea of using them for firefighting purposes, detection of toxic substances and explosives, mobile communication, security of property and assets and even to capture photos and videos that could later be used in marketing campaigns.
A small sample of survey respondents have already helped confirm what Richman said her staff knew to expect: people are generally less excited about using drones for purposes that could be seen as opportunities to perform surveillance on the public.
The “security” and “marketing” options scored relatively low among the early respondents, while “search and rescue” and “firefighting” received strong support.
Richman is in touch with the ACLU, hoping to keep the city in line with what’s constitutional, and with the population’s comfort level.
Eric Frew, director of the Research and Engineering Center for Unmanned Vehicles at the University of Colorado, said that for certain municipal activities, drones have proved to be highly useful.
“You can get views that you couldn’t get in any other way,” he said. “When drones really hit it big about a decade ago, people talked about them doing the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks.
“A truck overturns and maybe it’s carrying chemicals, and you use a drone to see what’s going on,” Frew said of one dirty and dangerous job.
He said that he understands the fear many have about being spied on, though he believes that’s somewhat misguided, because there are many potential surveillance tools out there — some as seemingly innocuous as traffic cameras or cellphones — that don’t spark as much concern.
In Boulder, city government admitted in 2014 to continuously videotaping the Civic Area in response to an increase in reports of criminal activity on the downtown municipal campus.
With drones, though, Frew theorized that “having things fly evokes a different mental picture for people.”
When the survey period wraps — likely at the beginning of 2018 — staff will evaluate how the technology might benefit Boulder. That evaluation will likely include some cost analysis, which could reveal many different options, as sophisticated drones can range in price from $1,000 to about $50,000.
Frew thinks the city has a chance to become an innovator in this field.
“Boulder could be a leader in how municipalities of this size implement the technology,” he said.