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Kalispell council mulls privacy concerns over drone use

by BRET ANNE SERBIN
Daily Inter Lake | August 11, 2021 12:00 AM

Questions about privacy issues surfaced Monday during a Kalispell City Council work session aimed at discussing the city's use of drones and other advanced technology.

On the flip side, city officials told the council that using drones and other technology is increasing efficiency and productivity in city operations.

In 2017, the city started using drones in many departments, such as Planning, Public Works and Parks and Recreation.

"Everybody is applying drones to specific projects where it's applicable," said Jason Singleton, a GIS specialist in the city's Information Technology department.

Singleton gave a presentation on the benefits of drones and the regulations the city is required to follow in order to operate them.

He said "unmanned aircraft" are used by city staff for the main purposes of mapping, 3D modeling, volume calculations and media development.

The drone Singleton utilizes is separate from the drone used by the Kalispell Police Department. The guidelines Singleton discussed on Monday pertain only to drone usage outside of the police department.

For instance, Singleton is not allowed to fly the city drone above 400 feet. He's also prohibited from flying directly above or hovering over people.

Those parameters are set by the Federal Aviation Administration in the interest of safety, but they prompted discussion among council members regarding privacy issues.

Council member Sid Daoud brought up a series of questions related to maintaining citizens' privacy with a government drone flying around the city.

Daoud was worried about city drones possibly being used to expose illicit activities on private property that otherwise might go unnoticed, such as keeping too many dogs in a yard or growing illegal drugs in a garden.

He also pointed out the possibility that footage gained using the city drone might then be used by the police department or made publicly available on city websites.

"I just want to be in front of this to make sure the community knows what we're doing ahead of time so there's no misunderstandings," Daoud explained.

Daoud's questions gave the council food for thought regarding drone rules and the different possibilities that arise from such technology versus slightly less advanced technology, such as a neighbor peeking over another neighbor's fence.

DESPITE DAOUD'S concerns, there was a lot of enthusiasm among the council over the many benefits of using drones for official city tasks.

Drone imagery can provide visual clarity and precise locations for city staff dealing with questions like zoning, building and environmental features. One of the most significant benefits Singleton highlighted was saving time. He said the city's drone could map 100 acres in 30 minutes.

Another time-saving initiative is Geographic Information System technology, or GIS.

Singleton and Angie Thomas, a GIS specialist in the Public Works Department, gave presentations about the ways different city departments use this system to increase efficiency and transparency.

The city maintains publicly available maps that cover parks amenities, snow-plow routes, crime statistics and 20 individual sets of planning details like parcels, buffers and zoning categories.

Since implementing GIS technology, which was initially incorporated into some city operations in 2013, "our efficiency and productivity has increased because there's no longer a need for field staff to finish one work order, then drive back to the office to find out what the next task might be," said Thomas.

Singleton said he anticipates seeing more uses for this technology across city departments in the future. "I think the trend is paperless, mobile and cloud-based technology," he said.

Reporter Bret Anne Serbin may be reached at 406-758-4459 or bserbin@dailyinterlake.com.