Kingsburg pilots drone use for building inspections

Kingsburg City Council votes in favor of purchasing a drone for the city to use during building site inspections

Shot of hanging sign outside of Council Chamber entrance. (Kenny Goodman)
Shot of hanging sign outside of Council Chamber entrance. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published June 23, 2023  • 
3:00 pm

KINGSBURG –  Kingsburg is joining Sacramento, New York, Tarpon Springs, Florida and Bend, Oregon as the latest city to utilize unmanned aerial systems – known more commonly as drones – for performing building inspections.

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), have evolved from being the pastime of hobbyists into essential tools for numerous applications – including building inspections. Kingsburg City Manager Alexander Henderson said the city has been working on the UAS program for six months.

“Last night’s (council meeting) was the first formal introduction to the council, but they were aware of the development of the program,” Henderson said. He added that Kingsburg spoke with other cities about the pros and cons of using a drone. 

Henderson said he anticipates the cost of the drone and accessories will be in the $1,500 to $2,000 price range.

Obviously, Kingburg’s UAS Inspection Program is in its infancy. The council’s vote gave the city the go ahead to purchase one drone and accessories. According to a staff report prepared by AJ O’Connell of the Kingsburg Building Division, the funds to pay for the drone will be procured through grants. The city will not have to dip into the general fund to defer costs.

Southern California Edison (SCE) uses drones to inspect power lines in rough terrain. According to a November 2021 SCE press release, using drones to patrol power line circuits has directly decreased the duration of power shutoffs. The company also relies on drone technology to inspect more than 400,000 utility poles, transformers and power lines in high fire risk areas. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) also relies on drones for its various inspections.

Kingsburg’s UAS is not so ambitious. According to O’Connell’s staff report, the city’s UAS will be limited in its application. The drone will not record video but will only take still shots of buildings. 

According to the report, the drone will only be used for following: roof-mounted photovoltaic systems; re-roofs; structural roof assemblies; structural exterior brace walls at or above two stories above grade; exterior wall facades and covering assembles at or above two stories above grade; unoccupied “U” occupancy structures at or above two stories above grade; wall mounted and pylon signage; disaster assessment and mitigation; mutual aid support of another agency when the underlying mission meets the uses outlined in the UAS program; and emergency responses.

The drone will not be used for code enforcement purposes. The UAS program will be included in the terms of any building permit application that requires drone inspections. Any building owner who objects to the drone can opt out; however, the owner must pay for expenses building inspectors incur as a result of the owner’s decision not to employ the drone.

Only Kingsburg Building Division employees will pilot the drone. These individuals must hold an active Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license for commercial drone usage and must have logged a minimum of 15 hours flight time.

To allay any fears the drone will be used for sinister purposes, the staff report notes that no video will be permitted to be recorded. According to the city’s UAS Operations Procedure, a draft copy which was provided to the council, under the prohibited uses, the UAS shall not be used to conduct surveillance activities or to target a person based on individual characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation. The staff report notes Kingburg’s legal counsel was involved in the planning stages of the program.

The drone will only fly in the airspace over the inspection site and will only fly during designated inspection times. The drone cannot fly higher than 400 feet above ground level. The drone may not fly within 500 vertical and 2,000 horizontal feet of clouds and may only fly in conditions where there is a minimum visibility of three miles.

The city’s drone comes equipped with GPS-tracking technology and LiDAR. LiDAR stands for laser imaging, detection and ranging, and works on the same principle of RADAR but relies on light from a laser to detect objects. RADAR, or radio detecting and ranging, relies on radio waves to detect objects.

If LiDAR detects an object in the drone’s flight path, obstacle avoidance technology activates. The drone will either hover in place or pilot a course around the obstacle. 

Kingsburg has not published a timeline for when the building division will begin using the drone for inspections. Henderson said other city departments will monitor the drone program. He said it’s possible the city may expand its drone fleet.

“Possibly,” Hendersaid said. “We are a small community and organization so there is a limit on what our needs might be.”

Darren Fraser