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Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser tests out drones to evaluate land | DRONEPETS.ORG

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Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser Greg Brown explains how an unmanned aerial vehicle – commonly known as a drone – produces its images.
Anne Delaney

The pieces of what look like a toy airplane sit on a conference table in the Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser’s office. 

There is even a small gray propeller attached to one part of the 3-pound, black-and-yellow plane. That only enhances the first-glance impression: it’s a toy. 

The truth is, this is an unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone. And the new “toy,” which costs thousands of dollars, has allowed the Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser’s office to become a pioneer among its peers throughout the state.

“The data we get from it is amazing,” said Property Appraiser Greg Brown . “It’s neat to see. They go up in the air and what we get out of it, it helps the county.” 

Since September 2016, the office has been testing the limited use of drones to supplement and update property data, something Brown said is a first for property appraisers in the state of Florida. 

Nine Federal Aviation Administration-licensed, UAV-certified pilots on Brown’s staff operate the four drones. For them, the fun of flying comes not from playing with a “toy,” but rather from the information and images it captures.

“It’s a different aspect to the job,” said Steve Jones, who has 17 years with the property appraiser’s office and is a “tech guru” when it comes to the drones. “It’s an exciting part of the job. What we get back, the information we get back is far different from what we used to get back.” 

As the property appraiser, Brown is responsible for identifying, locating and valuing all property within the county for tax purposes. In Florida, property appraisers are mandated by law to provide aerial photos of county land to the state. 

The drones that Brown’s office uses are also a way to cut costs for county taxpayers.

Previously, every two years, Brown’s office has had to pay $250,000 per flight for an aerial photography company to fly over the county’s 1,100 square miles to get photos.

Using the drones, the county can push back that expense to every three or four years, while keeping county maps current with the drones.

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Brown said the drones are primarily used to fly over new subdivisions and add that data to maps available on the property appraiser’s website,  

“I’m just trying to find ways to save the taxpayers money and do the job better, faster and quicker,” said Brown, 66, who was first elected in 2000.

The office has four drones of two different types at its disposal. One body type is known as a quadcopter and resembles a spider with four main rotor systems and the absence of a tail rotor.

The quadcopters hover in the air and can stay up for about 15 to 18 minutes, while the fixed-wing vehicle can remain airborne for about 45 minutes. A pilot and spotter from Brown’s office are on site for the flights and “they hit one button and it can fall out of the sky,” Brown said.

The property appraiser’s office is, in part, constrained by FAA regulations that include needing clearance up to 90 days in advance to use the drones. The office was scheduled to fly the drone one day this week, but cloudy weather cancelled the flight.

The office does have the ability to use the drones in the county landfill where it can help calculate volume that needs to be reported to the U.S. Environment Protection Agency. 

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“These points can tell, in a matter of seconds, we can do volume calculations and tell when the landfill is full,” Brown said. 

The initial start-up cost for the drones project was about $25,000 for the sophisticated software and about $16,000 to $25,000 for each of the drones. 

In the future, Brown would also like to use the drones to evaluate properties and damage in the aftermath of a tropical storm or hurricane. After Hurricane Ivan in 2004,  areas in the county remained inaccessible for weeks, and a drone could expedite assessment, he said.

Drones could also be used to predict which homes on the coast are in danger of flooding in the event of a storm

“I don’t think we got to the surface of this,” Brown said. “It’s the enormity of the data that we never had before and we can look at different aspects we never had before. The exciting part is what the potential is out there on what we can do.” 

Anne Delaney can be reached at [email protected] or 850-435-8522


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