Philly electricians’ drone contingent still grounded, awaiting federal approvals

The powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 purchased drones recently to monitor some of its work sites in Philadelphia.

But a launch of the air fleet is on pause until the union receives the blessing from federal aviation officials.

Last month, Local 98 unveiled the drones with a YouTube video that features a drone taking off next to union boss John Dougherty. The ’80s hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” plays as the little aircraft buzzes around a picket site.

New Federal Aviation Administration rules require drones to fly under 400 feet; they must be within the line of sight at all times; and they can’t fly near stadiums or airports, according to a spokeswoman.

In additional, federal officials said, if a drone is for nonrecreational purposes, that use needs special approval.

So that effectively lands all of the union’s drones … for now.

“We are working with the FAA to come into compliance to make sure we’re operating these things legally and within the boundaries of the law,” said Frank Keel, Local 98 spokesman.

It’s about public safety — the drones can zoom in and film contractors’ trucks to make sure the companies have a valid license and no outstanding violations.

Keel speculated that had the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections deployed drones in 2013,  the deadly building collapse on 22nd and Market streets might have been avoided.

The new effort aimed at preventing future catastrophe at Philadelphia works sites now awaits federal approval. 

“We have flown these things just one time,” Keel said. “They have not been flown since.”

Keel had originally said that the drones could assist in ferreting out undocumented immigrants from construction sites, a statement that garnered heat from activist groups, who called it thinly veiled racial profiling.

It was a misstatement, Keel says now.

“I was in a hurry,” Keel said. “I meant to say unlicensed, not undocumented.”

The FAA expects 2.5 million drones to be in circulation by the end of the year. Commercial drone use is expected to account for the largest share of that.

Additional federal drone regulations are set to be released soon.

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