Palm Coast - The City of Palm Coast's new drone program takes flight! After more than a year of planning, preparing and training, the City has three drones and a dedicated team overseeing the program where this new technology will be used for various projects helping operations be more efficient and reduce costs.

The drones will be used in the departments of Information Technology; Planning; Communications and Marketing; Utility; Construction Management and Engineering; Building; and eventually the Fire Department. Some of the projects include mapping City property accurately, performing inspections, creating promotional video content, and surveying damage following weather emergencies. The drones have both video and image recording abilities and can capture high resolution imagery from high up in the air. The drone dedicated for the Fire Department has thermal capabilities that will be used to monitor structure fires and brush fires.

"This is groundbreaking technology for the City at a time when we are on the cusp of great things," said Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland. "We are at an important point in our growth to make wise investments in our technology where the benefits will be realized throughout the community in the months and years to come."

For the first official drone project, the environmental experts in Community Development asked if a drone could inspect a tower at 22 Utility Drive out of concern a nest may be active and that there could be osprey eggs or young in it. By using a drone to inspect the nest, the City was able to determine that the nest was not active and that there were no eggs or young present at initial inspection. The drone operator took great caution to utilize the drone's high resolution camera to confirm the presence of adults and/or young from a safe distance to minimize disturbance. City field crews continued to monitor it from the ground and with additional drone inspections and have since spotted an osprey visiting the nest, but are taking the appropriate precautions to ensure its safety and welfare as construction on the two projects continue. Since the drone was available to inspect the nest, it saved the City between $1500 - $2000 in expert monitoring costs that the City did not need to request. For reference, the drone cost approximately $1800 with all accessory equipment - so this has already paid for itself.

Some of the upcoming drone projects include capturing images and video in Town Center, the City-owned parks, City-sponsored events, and post-hurricane or other disaster images to aid in the cleanup and rescue efforts.

"The drone project perfectly synergizes into the City's smart city and innovation efforts," said Holland. "The core definition of a smart city means working more efficiently, with better results, and trackable by data. These drones offer information achieving just that."

GIS Specialist Austin Kladke brought the idea of drones to City management in 2018 after realizing a need for up-to-date, high resolution imagery that was becoming a common request from many of our departments. Kladke is a member of the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Division within the Information Technology Department and works with satellite imagery and geographic data on a daily basis. After getting the green light from the City Council, he assembled a diverse team of City employees to create the drone team and program.

"Using drones to capture high resolution imagery greatly enhances the division's available information sources and helps increase efficiency within the division and throughout the organization," Kladke said. "We are using the imagery to help our project managers and contractors make well-informed decisions about what exists where and to keep management up-to-date about the progress of projects throughout the City.

The initial cost of the program was $8000 and the annual cost in the coming years will be between $4500 - $6000, for insurance, repairs, batteries, or any other maintenance.

As of now, three employees within the City have the appropriate qualifications to operate the drones. These employees have licenses as required by local, state, and federal regulations, received training through internal and external training opportunities and certification through the Federal Aviation Administration. The protocol when operating drones is to only fly on public property. At City Hall, since it is within five miles of the airport, operators must notify the Flagler Executive Airport for clearance to fly. Drones can only be legally flown up to 400 feet in the air and during normal operational daylight hours. The City has made sure that all of the drones are insured, registered with the FAA, and will be flown safely. In fact, a Drone Code of Conduct was created in order to ensure that the drones will be used properly by City employees, and that citizen privacy will be respected.

The next steps in this program are to provide other employees with the proper training so that they can pass the required FAA Part 107 exam and officially become licensed drone pilots, allowing them to commercially fly for the City.