Next-Generation Drones Will Save New York City’s Infrastructure

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Camera drone flown by Wilson flies near the scene where two buildings were destroyed in an explosion, in the East Harlem section in New York City in this file photo
Camera drone inspects East Harlem buildings destroyed in March 2014's gas explosion.Photo: Mike Segar/REuters/Corbis

A weeklong series of ideas for improving urban life.

After years of being cast as robotic messengers of death and high-altitude spies, drones are getting new roles as kids’ toys, Hollywood cameras, and even airborne roof inspectors. Noncommercial drones can roam the open skies of suburbia at will, as long as they comply with FAA regulations (stay below 400 feet and at least five miles from the closest airport), but in dense cities they could be at once hugely useful and potentially dangerous. 

For City Councilman Dan Garodnick, New York is not the drone’s natural habitat. Garodnick worries that if the government doesn’t step in, rogue drones will swarm the metropolitan skies, creating airborne mayhem. They can crash against cornices, plummet to sidewalks, startle pilots, anger hawks, and even buzz Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. With Garodnick’s prodding, City Council recently held a hearing to discuss banning them from the five boroughs, even as the FAA mulls new regulations. For one thing, the 400-foot height limit means that drones can’t even get close to the top of the tallest towers, and the five-mile airport buffer puts virtually the whole city out of bounds.

Even so, various city agencies hope one day to use them to do the dangerous and laborious work of inspecting bridges, monitoring fires, and scanning façades for cracks. A company called Skycatch is programming drones to direct unmanned earthmovers from the air: the mindless leading the mindless. On an ordinary U.S. construction site, that technique would run afoul of union rules and regulations, but after a catastrophic flood, say, it would allow machines to clear debris without endangering more lives.

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One of New York’s biggest problems is crumbling infrastructure, and before you can do anything about a problem you have to diagnose it,” says Jon Ollwerther, an executive at the Brooklyn-based drone manufacturer Aerobo. “Right now you have to dangle people on ropes beneath a bridge, or swing them down from a reverse cherry picker, so they can inspect with mirrors and flashlights. That’s dangerous and costly, and if you’re using a vehicle, you have to block one or even two lanes of traffic on a busy bridge.” A drone, on the other hand, can hover alongside a viaduct, taking close-up photos of every inch.

For now that’s all it can do. If a possible crack appears, workers still have to clamber up and determine whether what they see on-screen is actually a structural flaw or a streak of rust. Eventually, though, drones might be fitted out with powerful enough software to analyze a viaduct’s condition and even perform repairs. A team of British engineers, based at the University of Leeds, was recently awarded $6.5 million from the U.K.’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop an army of drones and earthbound robots to find and fix potholes and electric lines. Instead of waiting until someone cracks an axle on a crevasse in the asphalt, drones could identify small fissures and prevent them from getting worse. That’s bad for DOT employees, who don’t want to see their jobs outsourced to flying gizmos, but it could transform the experience of rattling through winter-blasted streets.

Before they can allay New Yorkers’ fears of raining robot parts, engineers will have to show that they can reliably avoid crashes. They’re getting there, inching toward machines that communicate and navigate with the collective discipline of starlings at sunset. The California-based company PRENAV is developing drones precise enough to sidle up to delicate cell towers and inspect them at leisure, an ability it demonstrates with a nifty video of flying robot choreography.

In the end, drone advocates will have to persuade the public that their benefits outweigh their risks — that they can save lives as well as end them. In rural areas, they can be crucial tools: The architect Sir Norman Foster has proposed a drone port in Rwanda, where unmanned craft can soar over sparse and unpredictable roads, bringing medications to remote towns. But medical drones can also be vital in dense cities, where ambulances sometimes get stuck in traffic, lack crucial equipment, or are slowed by weather. The young entrepreneur Alec Momont recently won a Tribeca Innovation Award for the Ambulance Drone, which waits on a rooftop until called, then swoops out of the skies bearing a remote-controlled defibrillator to jump-start a victim’s faltering heart. Drones don’t need to perform that service very often before people stop fearing them as agents of doom and start respecting them as factory-made superheroes.

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The "Ambulance Drone"Photo: BAS CZERWINSKI

For now city officials mostly think of drones as a more efficient way of performing familiar tasks. The Fire Department, for example, is working on a program using tethered drones, which would rise straight up and feed high-resolution video through a cable — essentially a levitating version of a traditional pole camera. But natural disasters often make it impossible to assess damage in real time, because it takes a while to get a helicopter in the air after a flood. During Superstorm Sandy drones might have tracked advancing waters and monitored their retreat, producing an instantaneous map of the damage. “You could have them preprogrammed with the city’s coastline, all the parcel and lot data, and see what’s changed,” says Henry Jackson, deputy commissioner for technology and strategic resources at the Office of Emergency Management. “That’s pie in the sky for now.”