Calif. PD's drone program faces early growing pains

Chula Vista’s drones are mostly deployed as first responders during business hours between Mondays and Thursdays

Alex Riggins
The San Diego Union-Tribune

CHULA VISTA — After a FedEx employee fatally stabbed another driver during a road-rage incident in November, Chula Vista police used a drone to take crime-scene photos from a bird’s-eye view, capturing images that potentially could help a future jury better understand the scene.

About a month later, when a landscaper accidentally sparked a vegetation fire, a Chula Vista police sergeant flew a drone over the blaze to help firefighters better determine its size and movement.

And when a woman at a park late last year called Chula Vista police to report an allegedly vicious dog intimidating other animals and park visitors, officers flew a drone above the park, determined there was no such disturbance and diverted responding officers to more urgent calls.

Those are just some of the ways the Chula Vista Police Department has used its drones since late October, when it launched an experimental program that’s part of a nationwide pilot program being overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

With strict limitations on how they can be used, Chula Vista’s drones are mostly deployed as first responders during business hours between Mondays and Thursdays, responding to certain 911 calls within a one-mile radius of department headquarters. From Oct. 22 until Jan. 11, the department flew 231 drone missions totaling 57 flight hours. Calls to which drones were dispatched resulted in 14 arrests.

“The drones arm officers with information,” Lt. Chris Kelley, the drone program manager, said. “We’re able to see stuff before the officers get there that we wouldn’t have known about before.”

Patrol officers can even pull up an app on their department-issued cellphones and watch a live feed of the drone footage, Sgt. Lamar Barrett, program supervisor, said. The real-time video gives them a better understanding of how quickly they need to get to a scene, or how dangerous a scene could potentially be when they arrive.

And just last week, the department found another use for its drones, when they were flown over several areas, including “The Jungle” — an open area near the Westfield Plaza Bonita Mall — to find homeless encampments a few hours ahead of the annual Point-in Time Count.

Using photos taken by a drone, officers from the department’s homeless outreach team walked into the area in the predawn hours Friday morning to count and interview homeless people there.

Establishing Chula Vista’s new experimental program hasn’t always been smooth — which was to be expected. It was understood there would be hiccups and false starts.

Ironing out the wrinkles and figuring out how to safely and effectively use drones is precisely why Chula Vista, in partnership with the city of San Diego, was elected as one of 10 cities or agencies around the country to take part in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.

The participating government agencies and their private, commercial partners were chosen to help push the limits of commercial drone testing in real-world environments. The program is also meant to help the FAA develop ground rules around commercial drone use across the country.

The biggest obstacle Chula Vista police have encountered in the drone program’s infancy has been a firmware issue that grounded the department’s two biggest and best drones — the DJI Matrice 210 — in early November, just a few weeks after the program kicked off.

“The fear was the drones just falling from the sky. There were reports of them falling out of the sky,” Kelley said. “We were absolutely not going to put those machines out in the community with that risk.”

The firmware issue — which had to do with inaccurate battery readings, causing the Matrice 210 to lose power quicker than expected — was a manufacturer’s problem, and out of the Police Department’s control, Barrett said.

DJI, which is based in China, released a firmware fix earlier this month, and Chula Vista officers planned to relaunch their two Matrice 210 drones last Tuesday — more than two months after they were grounded.

In the absence of the pair of Matrice 210 drones, which feature a 30-times-zoom camera, the department used a DJI Mavic Pro and a DJI Mavic Enterprise, which are smaller drones with much weaker cameras.

“We never went down, we kept supporting the mission, we just made do with the smaller (drones),” Kelley said.

Another obstacle the pilots learned to deal with was magnetic interference, Barrett said. It was especially a problem when launching from the top of police headquarters, which is outfitted with large radio antennas. The problem has been overcome by launching flights from an elevated platform.

“Magnetic interference throws off the drone’s compass,” Barrett said as drones buzzed overhead during a monthly training session. This one took place above an area of open space near Clear View Elementary School.

A drone’s compass allows it to fly by GPS, which is the way nearly all missions are carried out. Using an app, the pilots and operators flying the drones can drop a pin in the location where they want it go, and that’s where the drone flies, supervisory Sgt. Jim Horst said.

Chula Vista police now have nine FAA-certified drone pilots, including both Kelley and Barrett.

Despite some early setbacks, Kelley and Barrett said the lessons they and others will learn by participating in the FAA pilot program could help other public safety agencies in the future. Barrett said law enforcement officials from around the country have already been calling Chula Vista to learn more about how best to use drones,

“We’re gaining valuable experience that other departments will be able to learn from,” Kelley said. “Our ability to participate in the (Integration Pilot Program) opens a lot of doors, and a lot of agencies will be the beneficiaries.”


©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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