Operators, such as Chosid, still face a long road to operating in the city. The Department of Buildings is not required to complete the study for at least a year, and it will have to create new rules around how and when drones can be used instead of physical inspections.
New York is one of the most difficult places to do commercial drone work in the country, second only Washington, D.C., Chosid said. A roughly 70-year-old city statute requires all aircraft to take off and land in areas controlled by the Port Authority. There are exceptions in small areas—such as over the Brooklyn Navy Yard or for government work—but the rules leave drones mostly grounded. That hasn’t stopped some recreational flyers who defy those laws—but it has slowed down companies wanting to grow their business in New York.
Firms, such as Reign Maker, have pushed for years to change that, especially after the Federal Aviation Administration legalized commercial-drone use in 2016.
Bills from Councilmen Justin Brannan and Paul Vallone dating back to 2018 would open the city to more commercial drone usage, but they have stalled.
The idea to use drones for building inspections gained traction following the death of Erica Tishman—the architect who was struck and killed by parts of a falling facade in Times Square.
“Failure to modernize can have heartbreaking consequences,” Vallone wrote in an op-ed in January, shortly before the bill for drone inspections was introduced. The councilman said drones could more quickly and efficiently complete the building inspection that landlords are required to have every five years.
Drones also could cut down, Chosid said, on the city’s great streetscape menace: scaffolding. The sidewalk sheds owners erect for building inspections can sometimes take years to come down.
“The drone, meanwhile, is a very quick scan. You’re just taking a photo, taking a photo, taking a photo,” Chosid said. “Then if you see issues that require physical inspections, only then would you maybe need scaffolding.”
The legislation was backed by Tech:NYC, the city’s industry lobbying group, and the DJI Technology, a Chinese company that is the world’s largest manufacturer of drones. The Real Estate Board of New York and the New York Building Congress also supported the measure.
Under the approved bill, the Department of Buildings study is due at the end of October 2021.