Drones: destined to be the scourge of the skies? Or a brilliant convenience that allows people to complete everyday tasks from the comfort of their computers? Only time will tell, but some co-op denizens are already rooting for the latter.
Glen Oaks Village is a garden apartment co-op aptly located in Glen Oaks, Queens, consisting of 134 two- and three-story buildings spread over 110 acres. This type of sprawl can make routine maintenance, like inspecting gutters for leaf blockage or checking for chimney and roof damage, nearly herculean. Workers need to ascend and descend ladders several hundred times to canvass the property.
Not one to be satisfied with the status quo, Glen Oaks Village Board President Bob Friedrich surmised that there had to be a better way. Figuring he could use technology to minimize both risk and labor, late last year he rallied both the board and maintenance committee to invest in a reasonably priced drone to take the burden off workers’ shoulders.
“It’s been fantastic,” enthuses Friedrich. “We fly the drone above the roof line, and we can go building by building to check gutters. We might find that, out of 134 buildings, only 16 have leaf blockage, and thus we only send men up to that small portion of the property for maintenance.”
In addition to reducing safety concerns, the drone has proven cost-effective. “One-hundred-thirty-four buildings means 134 chimneys,” Friedrich explains. “The only way to review them with any scrutiny involves scaffolding. Most co-ops rarely even check their chimneys. But now we can do everything with the drone, and it eliminates that scaffolding expense.”
Of course, the advent of any new technology comes hand-in-hand with new rules, regulations and restrictions, and drones are currently the center of much debate. As various states and municipalities ponder how tightly to police drone usage, the Federal Aviation Administration has already taken action to ensure safe use. According to Leni Morrison Cummins, an attorney and a member of the real estate department at the law firm of Cozen O’Connor in Manhattan, for recreational use, the FAA requires that all drones weighing roughly half a pound to 55 pounds be registered online (Glen Oaks’ drone clocks in at a fairly low 10 to 12 pounds).
The FAA also enforces “built-up prohibitions” designed to prevent any accident or injury in populous areas. “One cannot fly a drone over people or moving vehicles and must remain at least 25 feet away from individuals,” says Cummins. “You need to contact an airport if you are within five miles of same. Two miles [in the case of] heliports.” Finally, for good measure, one must always operate a drone within line of sight.
And, where legalities go, insurance concerns follow. As Ed Mackoul, president of insurance brokerage Mackoul & Associates in Island Park, New York, points out: “I envision liability issues with owners/board members having drones. While drones can be helpful, typically it would be the vendors hired by the board that would have the best use for them, such as a contractor tasked with inspecting a façade. Additionally, the insurance company may need to use them for search and rescue in the event of a claim.
“The best deployment of drones that I can think of, from a board perspective, is for security measures, much like closed-circuit television. I don’t see any positives from an insurance point of view were individual owners to use them. They could damage the building were they to crash. If a board’s drone caused such damage, its only recourse for reimbursement would be the insurance company and not another party, as the board would be at fault. And were a drone to cause an injury on the property, whether it was operated by the board or an individual, the co-op or condominium would more than likely be named in a lawsuit.”
Between safety, legal, and insurance concerns—not to mention the potential for invasion of privacy that stems from what is ostensibly an unmanned flying camera gliding about a community—one might give pause before incorporating a drone into regular co-op routine, but Friedrich remains unperturbed, even as his local City Council holds hearings to discuss regulating drone use.
A bill proposed by City Council Member Paul Vallone could "create violations and/or misdemeanors with fines for [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] that are flown in prohibited areas as well as those flown with the intent to create harm or damage or destroy property," according to a recent council newsletter. While initially concerned that said bill might encumber Glen Oaks' ability to operate its drone as intended, Friedrich asserts that he'd spoken with Vallone, and that the councilman had been "very responsive and appreciative of the input, because they'd not been thinking on those terms," referring to controlled residential property surveillance.
"The rules in place are fine with us," says Friedrich. "We're careful to only fly over roofs." He also notes that the drone has a fail-safe button, that when it detects a low battery, loses a signal, or the operator loses visual contact, it automatically returns from where it was released.
While Friederich acknowledges that the rules may prove somewhat restrictive, he insists that, after an in-depth drone orientation session replete with video at their annual meeting in November, Glen Oaks owners were excited for the drone's possibilities. "They think it's fantastic," he says. "I would definitely recommend this to other large co-ops. We've really eliminated a great exposure while increasing safety."
Michael Odenthal is a staff writer at The Cooperator.
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