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New push to put drones in NYC airspace

Two City Council members want high-tech drones to inspect New Yorkʼs famous streets in the latest move to keep its citizens safe.

At a Housing and Buildings hearing in City Hall on Monday, council members Robert Cornegy and Ben Kallos sponsored a bill to conduct a study into the use of drones, saying they could offer a more precise and less expensive way to inspect façades.

Drones with more accurate readings could also lead to a reduction of the estimated 330 miles of scaffolding currently circling the city, according to the councillors.

According to Kallos, “If laid out side to side, city scaffolding would stretch from Central Park to the Canadian border. The average age of a sidewalk shed is 308 days. One is old enough to have its bar mitzvah, which is 13, and some are old enough to vote.”

Council members Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy on the steps of City Hall

According to DOB data, there are currently 9,050 scaffoldings in the city, with 88 percent up for less than a year.

Cornegy claimed some building owners use scaffoldings to delay or avoid doing the repair work the rigs were intended to protect pedestrians from, even if that means they have to pay fines.

At the same time, Cornegy said he didn’t want to increase fines related to the misuse of scaffoldings, because he’s concerned it could end up negatively impacting building owners who are not bad actors.

Kallos criticized how some building inspections are currently conducted using binoculars, telescopes and even inspectors rappelling from buildings.

“We have a lot of new technology that can do a much better job than Galileo could do with a telescope,” he said.

At a hearing, drone industry professionals agreed New York is lagging behind other cities in the use of technology.

The FDNY and NYPD already use drones, said Brendan Schulman, vice president of policy and legal affairs for drone manufacturer DJI, who suggested the Parks Department could use the devices to look for rotting tree branches, while NYCHA could use them to look for damaged rooftops.

Schulman said drones can be outfitted with identifying information about who’s operating them, similar to a license plate, which could help alleviate inevitable concerns about privacy.

Schulman also said anyone who has ideas about using a drone to spy on people in buildings shouldn’t bother, because while they’re good at inspecting façades, they’re not good at seeing through glass or mirrored surfaces.

Under current law, flying drones is not permitted within the city, and the bill sponsored by Kallos and Cornegy, who chairs the City Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee, would only authorize a study on the safety and feasibility of drones for building façade inspections.

“When people are walking down a street, they have a reasonable assumption that they’ll be safe from danger,” said Cornegy.

He also said he wasn’t looking to use drones as a replacement for more hands-on inspections done by human façade experts, but thought that using both could make inspections more efficient.

Brendan Schulman

Adam Lisberg, a spokesperson for DJI, said modern professional drones can cost up to $15,000.

Meanwhile, Commissioner of the Department of Buildings, Melanie La Rocca, said at the hearing that she was open to any study of the technology if it furthers the department’s mission of making pedestrians safer.

Beginning February 20, she said her department is increasing penalties against landlords who don’t complete the projects the scaffoldings are put up for, and then promptly remove them.

Failure to correct an unsafe condition will remain a $1,000 per month violation, but starting in year two, there would be additional monthly penalties for every linear foot of scaffolding at a building.

These fines would start at $10 per linear foot in year two and increase by $10 per linear foot per month each year. In year three, it would become $1,000 per month plus $20 per linear foot of scaffolding and in year four, $1,000 plus $30 per linear foot of scaffolding.

Under Local Law 11, buildings six stories or higher must undergo façade inspections every five years. A prior version of the current law was enacted after a woman was fatally struck by falling terracotta from an Upper Manhattan building in 1980.

More recently, architect Erica Tishman was killed by falling bricks as she walked by a midtown Manhattan building in December. Earlier this month, Xiang Li was hit by a stray brick as she walked down a street in Flushing, Queens.

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