Resort Officials Sign Off On Ambitious Drone Program

OCEAN CITY-  The future has arrived in Ocean City with a plan approved this week to utilize Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones for all manner of public safety and other applications.

For the last several months, Emergency Services Director Joe Theobald has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory agencies to allow Ocean City to begin implementing a UAS, or drone, program in a variety of capacities over the skies of the resort. The use of drones for public safety and other governmental interests is certainly not new, but Theobald and his staff has been working closely with the FAA and other regulatory agencies to tailor a suitable program that meets the resort’s specific needs.

On Tuesday, Theobald presented the Mayor and Council with an outline of the UAS program. Already the town has secured three of the aircraft through grant funding and has worked through the approval process with restrictions appropriate to the resort area.

“This is something that has been under consideration for about 20 months,” he said. “This is a tool that’s good for the town from a public safety standpoint and a myriad of other uses. It’s been a tedious approval process, but we wanted to establish a program that meets all of our needs and complies with all federal guidelines.”

The sky’s the limit, so to speak, for the town’s budding drone program in a variety of uses. For example, from a law enforcement standpoint, the drones can be used for aerial surveillance during incidents and accidents and they can be used to provide aerial images of special events and other areas where large crowds gather.

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From the fire department standpoint, the UAS can provide firefighters and first-responders with real-time aerial images of active fires and other emergency situations, allowing the department to best direct operations from the ground. The Beach Patrol and other first-responders will be able to use the drones for water search and rescue missions, and the UAS can also be used to survey post-storm beach erosion, flooding and other uses.

What the drones won’t be used for, according to Theobald, is to survey everyday crowds on the beach or Boardwalk or any purposes that would hint at spying on residents and visitors. The tedious approval process went to great lengths to ensure the drones are used for their intended purposes.

“The public needs to have an expectation of what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “The tenets of the program are privacy and civil liberties. The public has to buy into this. We don’t want the perception that Big Brother is flying around watching everything. That is not the intent of the program.”

Theobald said the relative remote nature of the resort away from major airports and heavy aircraft traffic areas somewhat eased some of the restrictions placed on drone usage in other areas.

“We don’t have a lot of the restrictions that other areas in Maryland would have,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about BWI, and we don’t have to worry about Salisbury. Our geographic location is really perfect for this program.”

For that reason, some restrictions imposed on drone usage in other areas won’t apply in the resort area.

“Again, it’s been a tedious process, but we’ve been granted the authority to do certain things because of our approvals,” he said. “The groundwork is done on some of these things. For example, we will be able to fly over people and we’ll be able to fly at night.”

Already, Ocean City has secured three of the approved UAS. The next step is training operators to fly them. The potential pool of candidates will likely come from police, fire and other emergency personnel, but the program could be open to other town employees.

“We were able to purchase three aircraft through grants and they are equipped with cameras and spotlights,” he said. “We didn’t want to spend a lot of money up front. We want to walk first and get the program up and running before we get running with it. We’re asking for your support so we can pursue this further. The goal now is to get 10 people certified to fly these drones. We have to start somewhere.”

Satisfied the program as presented did not represent a significant financial burden and that the requirements have been met and the privacy and civil liberties issues have been resolved, the council voted unanimously to approve the program.

“I’ve read a lot of articles in trade magazines about these programs and I can see a lot of uses for law enforcement, for engineering,” said Councilman Mark Paddack. “On the fire department side, I can see a lot of applications for them as well. Perhaps the most important thing I see is the Beach Patrol using these for search and rescue missions. From the ground level, it’s difficult to see a victim in the water.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.