By David Cameron, UAS/DFR Program Creator and Manager at Campbell Police Department, Field Service Engineer, MatrixSpace
In traditional first responder UAS (unmanned aircraft systems or drones) programs, drones are used to assist personnel responding to a variety of public safety and life preservation missions – high-risk search warrants and active shooters to lost or missing persons, disaster response and recovery, arson investigation, post-incident crime scene preservation and documentation, to name a few. They are cost-effective, especially when compared to traditional rotary or fixed-wing aircraft units which can cost millions of dollars to obtain, operate and maintain, and which the majority of agencies are too small to manage.
But drones were unable to provide real-time data to responders before they arrived at the incident as drone deployments don’t typically occur until first responders have already arrived on the scene.
So what if drones could provide public safety personnel with detailed information ahead of their arrival, helping them make more informed decisions, fast? This is a significant breakthrough when personnel are being sent to every call with little time to assess or mitigate problems prior to arrival. Are they even required? Enter the emerging Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program and the next evolution of drones in public safety.
Beyond Visual Line of Sight
The Chula Vista Police Department in California innovated the term DFR in 2017 when they were the first to fly drone missions remotely under an FAA authorization. This was first via a rooftop pilot, maintaining a visual line of sight with the drone, then later obtaining authorization to fly BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) out to three miles. First responder agencies operate UAS programs under either an FAA Certificate Of Authorization (COA) or CFR 14 Part 107 commercial certification. With a COA, agencies can operate and train pilots without outside or individual certifications, along with a list of what the agency is allowed to do, such as fly at night or fly BVLOS. CFR 14 Part 107 commercial certification pilots fly under their certification and the regulation laid out by CFR 14 Part 107). The BVLOS waiver is the significant part. Before this, drones couldn’t launch until a pilot arrived at the scene. The DFR program finally provides first responders with critical incident intelligence and management in advance.
To operate a DFR involves at least one FAA-trained Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) and a Teleoperator (TO), with the RPIC typically stationed on a roof and the TO located in a command center. The TO has emergency management experience and is able to give pre-arrival information to units. The RPIC has ultimate responsibility and the ability to take physical control of the drone in an emergency. They are responsible for preparing the UAS for launch and then to visually scan the airspace for any crewed aircraft incursion. The TO monitors incoming 911 calls and decides which require UAS support. The UAS bypasses traffic so arrives on the scene much sooner and provides advanced assessment from the air. Video from the drone can then be streamed to other control centers, dispatch, and individual officers in the field.
Eyes on the Ground
With this critical information, the dispatcher can now better assess the situation. They may even call off responding units if it’s determined they are unnecessary, saving resources and allowing them to be utilized for more urgent calls. Or the TO may direct them to slow down, hold positions, or enter the scene from different directions based on their observations. Or they may get advanced warning of particularly dangerous or hazardous situations.
For example, an incident occurred in Chula Vista when a 911 call was received regarding a man waving a gun in front of a restaurant. The DFR drone arrived and the TO began an assessment. The TO saw the man with the gun sitting at an outdoor table, but based on how others in the area seemed unconcerned so requested responding units stand by while he observed the situation. Zooming the drone’s camera, the TO saw the man use the gun to light a cigarette. It was a lighter, and the situation was de-escalated. Just one example of how pre-arrival information can be critical.
To date the City of Chula Vista’s DFR program has flown over 13,800 separate drone flights, with 24% of those flights being handled solely by the drone – assessed the situation remotely and deciding first responders were not required. The drones are used to respond to many more emergencies than before and make an incredible difference in the amount of time it takes for first responders to reach the scene and be better prepared to deal with the situation. The average response time in 2022 is between three to four minutes (Chula Vista Police Department statistical data.)
DFR programs are becoming popular nationwide – San Antonio, TX, Brookhaven, GA, and Elizabeth, NJ have also launched them, to name a few. Also in California, the Campbell Police Department is leading the way with Santa Clara County’s first DFR program. In September 2022, Campbell was granted an FAA COA with a BVLOS waiver of three miles, allowing drones to be dispatched anywhere in the city. This waiver is unique in that it was obtained in a short period of time (approximately 16 days) and specific launch sites are not required to be pre-designated as long as operations remain in a specified pre-designated area. A remote pilot or visual observer can see two miles around the operating UAS in order to assist the pilot in remaining clear of other air traffic.
Are drones taking surveillance to a new level, encroaching on individuals’ privacy? Drones in law enforcement should not be used for purposeful surveillance absent a search warrant, just as any other form of surveillance is restricted. For day-to-day operations, drones are typically used as a response tool to specific incidents and are not used to randomly fly around looking for crime. But we are familiar with the concept of patrols around a neighborhood – whether on foot, bike, by car or now overhead. Drones can serve the same purpose as long as the observation is not invading an area where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, which can also be subjective. But this logically follows the same guidelines today applied to existing patrols.
But the public’s privacy concerns must be taken seriously by any agency using drones. Having a well-established set of policies and procedures is a must. Having policies in place relating to how long an agency will maintain a non-evidentiary video or safeguarding unnecessary public recording while responding to calls, etc. are also essential. Community engagement cannot be underestimated and without community support, first responder drone programs won’t succeed.
But drones are here to stay across all manner of public safety and law enforcement – presenting an enormous range of opportunities for great efficiencies as well as life-saving possibilities especially across search and rescue. Complimentary policy considerations and regulations must continue to evolve accordingly. It’s an exciting time for exploring drone programs in public safety and DFRS are taking these possibilities to the next level.