Brooklyn Boro

City Council push to legalize drones for facade inspections

January 28, 2020 Lore Croghan
There's a push underway in the City Council to legalize the use of drones for facade inspections. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Send in the drones!

Following two deaths in the past month caused by debris falling from buildings, the City Council is taking steps to legalize the use of drones for property facade inspections.

“Where people walk our streets, they have a reasonable assumption that they are safe from danger,” City Councilmember Robert Cornegy said Monday at a press conference before a hearing on the proposal. Cornegy, who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, chairs the Committee on Housing and Buildings.

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He said a 1948 law that effectively bans drones in New York City is “antiquated — and it’s those types of laws that we have on the books that hold us back as a city from getting the necessities, and getting the necessary advancements that we need to save lives.”

A bill Cornegy and City Councilmember Ben Kallos have introduced would require the city Buildings Department to study whether drones would be more effective at keeping pedestrians safe than current facade-inspection methods, and whether drones would reduce the use of sidewalk sheds and scaffolding throughout the city.

Adam Lisberg, a spokesperson for drone maker DJI, showed reporters at the press conference a drone that weighs a half-pound and fits in the palm of his hand.

City Councilmember Robert Cornegy speaks to the press outside City Hall before a hearing. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
City Councilmember Robert Cornegy speaks to the press outside City Hall before a hearing. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Sidewalk sheds are meant to protect pedestrians from the threat of falling facade materials. But on some blocks, sidewalk sheds stand for long periods of time and turn into rat-infested public nuisances where pedestrians fear they’ll get mugged.

For some landlords, it’s cheaper to leave sidewalk sheds in place between legally mandated facade inspections than to dismantle them and reinstall them the next time they’re needed. Other landlords use sidewalk sheds to delay building repairs.


There are currently 9,373 active sidewalk sheds in New York City, with a combined length of 343 miles — long enough to reach from Central Park to the Canadian border if lined up end to end, Kallos said at the press conference.

The average age of the sidewalk sheds is 308 days, but one shed is old enough for a bar mitzvah, Kallos joked, meaning it has been standing for 13 years.

Kallos said drones would bring needed innovation to facade inspections, which instead rely on outdated technology in the form of binoculars and telescopes.

This sidewalk shed can be found on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
A sidewalk shed on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

In December, a piece of debris fell off a property on the corner of Seventh Avenue and West 49th Street, killing architect Erica Tishman. The owner of the building near Times Square had been fined last April because terracotta on its facade was at risk of falling.

The other recent facade-related death took place in January in Flushing. An aluminum-covered plywood panel fell off a building on Main Street and killed a pedestrian named Xiang Ji.

At Monday’s hearing, tech and construction industry executives voiced their support for legalizing drones for facade inspections.

“While major cities such as L.A. and Chicago have begun to reap the benefits of this technology, New York City stands alone and has been left behind,” said Diana Cooper of drone software and service provider PrecisionHawk.

“As new technologies are created and developed, it is important for our law to be updated. This is of the utmost importance if our city is to remain an international hub for innovation,” Bryan Lozano of nonprofit business coalition Tech:NYC testified.

Pedestrians make their way through a makeshift tunnel created by a sidewalk shed in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Pedestrians make their way through a makeshift tunnel created by a sidewalk shed in Brooklyn Heights. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

DJI Vice President of Policy & Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman said his company’s drones have a GPS-based feature called a geofencing system that prevents them from flying into high-security locations like airports, power plants and prisons.

Justin Pascone of the New York Building Congress called drones a “21st-century solution to increase public safety, reduce inspection times and cut construction costs.”

During the hearing, Cornegy raised the issue of drones’ possible invasion of apartment dwellers’ privacy.

Cooper, the PrecisionHawk executive, said drone operators must obey privacy laws like everybody else. She suggested building managers be required to give residents advance notice of facade inspections, like they do when window washers are scheduled.

At Monday’s hearing, Cornegy asked Buildings Department Commissioner Melanie La Rocca if her agency supports the drone feasibility-study bill. She said yes.

La Rocca testified that approximately 14,500 buildings citywide fall under the jurisdiction of Local Law 11, which requires exterior walls of properties taller than six stories be inspected every five years and any unsafe conditions that are found be remedied.

Buildings Department Commissioner Melanie La Rocca testifies at a City Council hearing. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle
Buildings Department Commissioner Melanie La Rocca testifies at a City Council hearing. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Following Erica Tishman’s death, the agency doubled the size of its facade inspection team by making 12 new hires.

New procedures instituted on Dec. 30 require the Buildings Department to do follow-up inspections of properties within 60 days after the agency finds they have Class 1 violations for unsafe facades. The inspectors must ascertain that sidewalk sheds or netting have been properly installed to protect the public. If they haven’t, city contractors will do the installation work and property owners must pay the bill.

Additional inspections will be done within 90 days after Class 1 violations are issued to make sure that property repairs have begun.

In December, City Councilmember Justin Brannan and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams called for lifting the citywide ban on drones so they can be used for facade inspection. Cornegy and Kallos had already been promoting the idea for quite some time.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.


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