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How Drones are Helping to Assist Police and Fire Departments in Public Safety and Disaster Recovery

How Drones are Helping to Assist Police and Fire Departments in Public Safety and Disaster Recovery

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, better known as drones, have become very popular in recent years. Mostly used for recreation, an increasing number of state and local government agencies are using drones to support a variety of public safety activities. Law enforcement agencies use drones in emergency situations, including to aid with search and rescue, accident, and hostage situations. Drones are also used for disaster assessment and recovery and to monitor crowds at events and demonstrations.

By using drones, police and fire personnel can assess a situation quickly and safely while getting a bird’s eye view of a scene, allowing them to gain a better vantage point than if they were assessing from the ground.

Drones Used by Law Enforcement & Emergency Units

According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, as of 2017 at least 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units across the United States were using drones as part of their operations. Of those 347 units, 121 are used by Sheriff’s departments; 96 by police; 69 by firefighters; 43 by city or county government agencies and 18 by statewide first responders.

In the United States, the Center has identified 43 states with active drone programs, with the highest number of drones found in Texas, with 28. (California is close behind with 23.) The largest municipalities and counties with active drone programs are New York City, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County. The Center also found that 2016 saw the largest increase of the use of drones by government departments - more than all previous years combined.

Currently there are about thirty five different types of drones being used by public agencies, the most popular of which is the Chinese-manufactured DJI. The military had been using DJI drones but stopped due to concerns that the data gathered by drones might not be secure[i] but despite these concerns, the DJI still seems to be a popular choice of drone for law enforcement and first responders.

Acquiring Drones & the Rules that Govern how Departments Use Them

Drones usually cost anywhere from $800 to $1,600, and some departments have spent up to $5,000 per unit. But the Center for the Study of the Drone found that 82 public service departments have acquired drones either by donation, through a grant program or via special funding such as civil forfeiture.

FAA Regulations

Like all aerial vehicles, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates the use of drones, and those operating a drone must follow these rules:

  • Drones must be registered and follow FAA restrictions, such as what time of day they can be flown
  • Public Safety departments have to apply for a Certificate of Authorization to fly drones
  • Drone operators must have a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating

(Source: D. Gettinger. “Public Safety Drones.” Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Drones at Home. 2017)

In tandem with drones’ growing popularity, public pressure to stop the use of drones has also increased, especially in residential areas where privacy is a concern. Some argue that drones are being flown too low over private property, but so far no legislation has been passed to prohibit drones flying over private residences or regulating how high above the ground they must fly.

That being said, people who operate drones must abide by the fourth amendment, which protects persons against unreasonable searches and seizures.i Beyond privacy concerns, some fear that drones will be equipped with lethal weapons. In a policing context, some states require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using a drone for searches or surveillance.[ii] Others simply require agencies using drones to file data reports and timelines of their use.

Examples of Using Drones for Law Enforcement & Public Safety

Drones are being used for:

  • Police pursuits
  • Locating suspects
  • Assisting firefighters at large fires
  • Aerial views of accidents, damages from storms and other disasters
  • Carrying medical equipment
  • Infrared technology to help assess situations such as hot spots at fires or thermal heat
  • Traffic safety
  • Monitoring large crowds

Drones have also been used to assess natural disasters and rescue missing persons:

  • In 2017, police in Texas used drones to get an aerial view of the flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey
  • Also in 2017, the L.A. Fire Department used drones to get a birds eye view of the Skirball fire in Bel-Air[iii]
  • In North Carolina, police used a drone to locate a missing elderly woman with dementia[iv]
  • In Pike National Forest, rescue crews were able to locate missing hikers with the use of a drone[v]
  • In Oakland, CA firefighters used a drone to look for hot spots at a warehouse fire[vi]
  • Virginia Beach police have used drones to keep an eye on a suspect barricaded in an apartment; to assess damages after a tornado and to keep an eye on swimmers at the annual Polar Plunge[vii]

Should Every Law Enforcement and Emergency Response Agency Acquire a Drone?

Drones are more cost efficient than other vehicles or equipment used by these departments, such as helicopters. But as more public agencies implement drone programs, government departments may see the benefit of purchasing drones through the procurement process in order to get the equipment they need at the lowest possible cost.

For vendors in the drone supply sector, public-sector opportunities to be on the lookout for include:

  • purchase of drones
  • parts and/or accessories, cameras
  • repairs
  • components
  • training
  • software
  • hardware
  • analytics

A growing number of state and local agencies are using drones to assist them in different situations, and in line with these efforts are beginning to launch programs that will allow them to purchase drones for emergency response purposes. In 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the launch of the New State Police Unmanned Aerial System Program, which will help with disaster response and traffic safety. At the beginning of the program four drones were put into service in Western NY, Central NY, West of the Hudson River and the Capital Region; by April of this year 14 more drones were expected to be in use across the state. The program is expected to cut costs, reduce response times, and document and help recreate accident scenes.[viii]

Genius NY – How New York State is Helping Businesses Build Better Drones

In 2016, Genius NY - a business accelerator competition that is focused on unmanned systems was launched, it’s a yearlong program based out of the Tech Garden in Syracuse and is the largest business accelerator competition in the world. Finalists are picked from a competitive pool from around the world and the program is broken down into phases where six teams will present their business pitch and ultimately demo their products. The program offers incubator space, company stipends, advisors, resources, programming, and connections and the grand prize winner receives $1million. Funding support is provided to the program by Empire State Development, New York State’s chief economic development agency. The 2017 grand prize winner was AutoModality of California and the 2018 grand prize winner was Fotokite of Switzerland.[ix]

A World with More Drones

Whether you’re for or against the use of drones, it’s tough to argue that there aren’t benefits to using a drone in emergency situations. The data drones collect can help public agencies develop and execute better response plans in the future.

Ultimately, drones are here to stay, but regulation remains a key issue. As time passes, expect to see new laws created to regulate how public departments operate drones. For now, though, best practices around using drones in emergency situations are still being developed - a perfect time for agencies to learn from one another about how to handle emergency situations with the assistance of drones.

Danielle Calamaras |

[i] C. Attanasio. “Drones Offer New Advantage for Police.” Government Technology. 8 Jan. 2018. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[ii] D. Gettinger. “Public Safety Drones.” Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Drones at Home. 2017. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[iii] H. Branson-Potts. “L.A. Fire Department Used Drones for the First Time During Skirball Fire.” 14 Dec. 2017. Web 20 Jun 2018

[iv] M. Murison. “Search and Rescue Police Drone Finds Woman with Dementia.” 9 Nov. 2017. Web 20 Jun. 2018

[v] K. Morfitt. “Search and Rescue Teams use Drones to Find Missing Hikers.” CBS4 Denver. 16 Jun. 2017. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[vi] A.Glaser. “Police Departments are using Drones to Find and Chase Down Suspects.” 6 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[vii] J. Harper. “Drones Give List to Virginia Beach Police and Fire Departments. 23 Feb. 2018. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[viii] “Governor Cuomo Announces Deployment of First State Police Aerial Drone Systmes.” 10 Jan. 2018. Web. 20 Jun. 2018

[ix] Genius NY. Empire State Development. 2018

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