Drones Will Help NYC DOB Inspectors Catch Up
The NYC DOB to use drones to help an overtaxed profession deal with heavy workloads.
New York City Department of Building inspectors are currently training to use drones to help speed up high-rise building inspections.
This past summer, the Allied Building Inspectors International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 211 sent 20 of its inspectors to attend the Drone Training Level 1 course at the IUOE International Training & Education Center (ITEC) in Crosby, Texas to learn the ropes of operating drones.
This was part of a push by Local 211 president and business manager Matthew Gugliotta to make the union a more professional workforce and comes at a time when New York City is implementing the new technology across sectors and making it an accessible option for the buildings department.
Drones can assist inspectors with assessing façade damage and help the construction industry operate more safely, speed up project timelines, and save on costs. As Union-Built Matters has oft reported, the city’s building inspectors have long been an overworked and underpaid entity. Though recent contact negotiation sessions have been positive, with a new agreement ratified in late September, the inspectors nevertheless continue to face a mountainous workload as they continue their role of overseeing the countless properties across the five boroughs.
“Without a doubt, drones will make the job easier, faster, and more accurate,” Gugliotta said.
“I think drones are the future of this space and would be beneficial for our inspectors. A drone is another tool to add to the inspector toolbox. A lot of inspectors are motivated to use this technology because they see all the different applications and it can make the job better.”
New York City must change some zoning and licensing rules to allow the DOB to more easily attain permits for drone inspections.
Drones in NYC
Drones were first introduced to the city’s buildings world in 2020, when the City Council passed Local Law 102, which required the Department of Buildings (DOB) to study the use of “unmanned aircraft systems” to conduct façade inspections in conjunction with hands-on inspections. Later, in 2021, the DOB released its initial report on drones, demonstrating the numerous positive ways the technology could aid inspectors.
“It is imperative that we continue to embrace the latest technologies and innovations in support of our mission to protect our fellow New Yorkers,” said Buildings Commissioner Melanie E. La Rocca in a release concerning the 2021 report, which she said found that, “when combined with traditional hands-on examinations, the effective use of drones could potentially result in more comprehensive building inspections, resulting in reduced inefficiencies and a safer New York City.”
This past summer, in July, Mayor Eric Adams unveiled new rules for drones that that established a streamlined permitting process and guidelines for the take-off and landing, as well as announced the allowed use of drones for services including building inspections and infrastructure assessments. “New York City is flying into the future, using drones to make city services faster and safer, and likely saving taxpayer dollars as well,” Adams said, adding that drones will “vastly increase the effectiveness and quality” of the city’s infrastructure inspections.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams announces the plan to accelerate the use of drones in building inspections.
Assessing Façade Damage
Assisting with the assessment of façade damage—which is regularly a tedious job—is perhaps the most popular benefit that drones bring to the buildings scene, largely because drones can reach places and angles that were impossible to view before. Matt Gugliotta told Union-Built Matters how inspectors reviewed facades in a pre-drone world: “The façade unit inspectors use cameras with telescopic lenses—and if they’re looking at a 60-story building, think of the angle that is. It’s hard to get good photos, and it takes time to process them and lay them out and look at them to assess any damage. Or sometimes they would go to the roof and look down to see the view from there. Ultimately, drones would be a much easier and more accurate tool for these types of inspections.”
Conducting work-in-progress inspections is also something drones can assist with. Using a live video feed, inspectors can conduct real-time analysis of façade damage, allowing for more immediate reactions and instant decision-making, and therefore overall quickening project timelines. Council Member Carlina River commented on this factor when the DOB released its 2021 report: “Façade inspections should not be so costly that scaffolding stays up for decades and our historic landmarks are impossible to maintain,” she noted. “I look forward to working with DOB to modernize façade inspections and other building maintenance to make our city safer for all New Yorkers.”
"...sometimes [an inspector] would go to the roof and look down to see the view from there. Ultimately, drones would be a much easier and more accurate tool for these types of inspections."
— Matt Gugliotta, Local 211 president
Improving Safety, Time, Costs
Not only do drones ensure the public’s safety by quickly spotting building damage that could be dangerous to passerby or residents—they also keep inspectors safer. Because drones can access parts of buildings or structures that would otherwise be difficult or impossible for inspectors to reach using traditional methods, the risk of accidents or injuries associated with inspectors is reduced. This is always a plus in an industry that is teeming with safety issues.
Plus, drones can cut time of tedious projects that hold up the department. Gugliotta gives an example of a basic inspection that a drone could easily quicken the pace of. “If a fire escape is broken but it’s in the backyard of a rowhouse and there’s no way to get to the yard other than through the house, but no one is answering the door, we would have the ability to fly a drone to the back to check,” he said, adding that not only would this speed up the inspection, but also ensure the fire safety of the building’s residents.
It’s worth noting that drones are extremely adept at collecting visual data—not just photos and videos, but also thermal images. The DOB can store these files and have the high-quality images and videos on hand for historical use. “The use of drones to inspect buildings could yield more detailed results and greater safety, as well as greater efficiency and documentation,” said Council Member Robert Holden in the aforementioned 2021 release. Keeping drone visuals as records could help inspector keep track of information and easily reference past projects.
The buildings world will surely see further technology swoop in to help save the industry from itself. The 20 Local 211 inspectors—15 of them employed by the DOB and five of them by the city’s House Preservation and Development (HPD) department—who attended the training over the summer are already licensed, or else in the process of getting licensed, as drone pilots. As more inspectors become certified in flying “unmanned aircraft systems,” more drones will be used across construction sites and the city’s buildings world will consequently operate more smoothly and efficiently.
Jessica Beebe is a multimedia journalist living and working in New York City. Email her at email@example.com.
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