On August 28th the Denver Post reported that the Denver Police Department had shelved a consumer-grade drone recently purchased for nearly $3,000 after the administration nixed the crime lab’s plan to use it to photograph crime scenes.  Meanwhile, the Denver Fire Department intends to move forward with plans to purchase an Aeryon SkyRanger to use when dealing with all sorts of incidents, including structure fires, hazardous material spills and rescues. The difference between the failure of one program and the likely success of the other appears to turn on public perception.

This real world example highlights the critically important task of considering the risk or benefit to your reputation or brand as a result of your drone program.  Members of the public often have a visceral, negative reaction to drones. A poorly implemented program can anger customers, industry partners, and the public, thereby tarnishing a well-earned reputation and cause the demise of your program. At the extreme, angry landowners have been known to shoot down drones.  On the other hand, a well implemented program can position you as an industry leader using cutting-edge technology to provide the best, most reliable electric service while ensuring the safety of your employees.

The best way to mitigate the down-side risk is to create a transparent and respectful program and require contractors to do the same. Whenever feasible, you should provide advance notification of flights to the property owner and to neighboring properties. This avoids any problems with people being surprised by an unexpected drone. Second, you should advise the public of your program, the possibility that you will be flying near or over their property, and invite their comments. Third, you should incorporate a data retention and privacy policy that is available to the public and strictly enforced.  Finally, the aircraft and flight personnel should be easily recognizable as corporate or government employees through appropriate paint schemes and clothing.

Being a good neighbor has added benefits.  The same steps that you take to address public perception and brand risk can help to reduce the factors that may lead to injury or liability. For example, unintentional or uninvited flight increases the chances of liability claims and may void insurance coverage or governmental immunity by constituting an unlawful act.  Also, accidents are much more likely when a drone is operated in close proximity to a structure or people, or flown in an unfamiliar environment.

As you develop, implement, or expand your unmanned aircraft program, be sure to include legal and public relations professionals alongside your operational leadership.  This could make the difference between your program fading away, as happened with the Denver Police Department, or moving ahead, like the Denver Fire Department.