Drone deployment during protest response

How Fort Wayne PD’s Air Support Unit provided a real-time view from the sky during both peaceful protests and civil unrest


By Trent Hullinger and Rod Bradtmueller

The Fort Wayne Police Department’s Air Support Unit (FWPD ASU) was formed in 2017 by Lieutenant Jon Bowers with careful oversight from Deputy Chief Martin Bender and Chief of Police Steve Reed. As small Unmanned Aerial Systems or “drones” came to proliferate, Lt. Jon Bowers recognized the value this technology could offer policing.

The FWPD ASU has one sergeant and six patrol officers, who are all Part 107 license Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) pilots. The ASU remote pilots typically work their normal duties for the department (patrol, detectives, etc.) with their ASU tasks on a call-out basis. The team trains two days per month to maintain skills and investigate future needs of the unit. Additionally, the team trains and collaborates with other public safety and public works departments, who also specialize in sUAS use.

The drones helped commanders identify supply routes protesters were using to move resources and people, as well as detect movements of crowds. (Photo/FWPD)
The drones helped commanders identify supply routes protesters were using to move resources and people, as well as detect movements of crowds. (Photo/FWPD)

The mission capabilities of the ASU have expanded exponentially since 2017 to include the following:

  • Crime scene and crash investigations
  • HAZMAT spills
  • Hostage and barricade scenes
  • Missing and vulnerable person searches
  • Protest and civil unrest surveillance

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Air Support Unit assists during civil unrest

From May until July 2020, FWPD was significantly impacted by protests and civil unrest. The utilization of the agency’s drone program in response proved invaluable to FWPD and the community, with the ASU providing the following support:

  • Helped commanders identify supply routes protesters were using to move resources and people, as well as detect movements of crowds.
  • Warned officers on the front lines if they were going to be approached by high-risk instigators embedded within peaceful protesters.
  • Assisted other units with the identification of spotters, who were telling protesters locations of police officers.
  • Detect in real-time the size of a crowd and whether it was increasing or dispersing.
  • Provide overwatch during traffic stops. DroneSense was used to provide this live video feed to the Command Center.

Between May 29 and June 14, 2020, the FWPD ASU completed 878 flights, were airborne for 153 hours and flew a total distance of 360 miles. For a comparison, for all of 2019 the ASU flew 1,600 flights and 250 flight hours. During the civil unrest, the ASU had a minimum of one drone flying and as many as five drones. The flight missions lasted 12 hours during the first weekend of protests.

Integration of drones into protest response planning

During the first weekend of civil unrest, it became clear that drones provided vital real-time information unlike anything FWPD had seen before. As a result, drones were used for pre-planning during subsequent protests.

For example, the ASU was used prior to deployment of specialty teams because Incident Command could decide which specialty teams (Emergency Services Team, Crisis Response Team, and/or Public Safety Response Team) were needed and where depending on the video feed provided by the ASU. Instead of dispatching officers to tense and potentially hostile areas, the drone could quickly provide Incident Command with information on potential agitators. Therefore, personnel deployment decisions were greatly improved because of drones.

Incident commanders had access to real-time video of the protests, which helped guide their critical decisions. (Photo/FWPD)
Incident commanders had access to real-time video of the protests, which helped guide their critical decisions. (Photo/FWPD)

Public notification of drone use

Many of the protesters were initially unaware of the drones. On the third night of the protests, the ASU used the speaker capabilities of the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise. The drone played a pre-recorded message over the crowd when Command decided that the crowd had gone from a peaceful to an unlawful assembly. This warning gave peaceful people in the crowd and even those breaking the law an opportunity to leave the area prior to police making arrests. Agitators in the crowd attempted to throw water bottles and other items at the drone playing the message over the crowd.

After the first weekend, the FWPD invited a local news reporter into the Command Center to educate and inform the media and public on the resources the department was utilizing. In addition, a sUAS pilot with a local news station flew in coordination with many of the ASU sUAS pilots to provide media coverage from the sky for the community. This helped to provide transparency with the media and community. The partnership with the media helped to facilitate a better relationship and eliminate any preconceived notions of the intentions of the FWPD ASU.

Drone-related technology that assisted during the protests

DroneSense is a mission-critical software that has assisted the ASU with building, managing and expanding the FWPD’s drone program. DroneSense aided the ASU with remotely streaming the real-time video of the protests instantly to incident commanders to help guide their critical decisions. Another benefit of DroneSense is that the ASU can be blocks away from the Command Center flying drones and focusing their attention on the mission without the distraction of commanders looking over pilots’ shoulders to view the video from the controller.

The Mavic 2 Enterprise (M2E) Dual Platform used by the ASU has two cameras. The first camera provided a visual camera with 4K Ultra HD video recording. The second camera used the thermal camera, which assisted locating people at night. The M2E has three attachments that each provide benefits depending on the mission:

  • The speaker provides the ability to give a message directly to the crowd without entering the crowd with police vehicles.
  • The spotlight helped to illuminate dark areas, tree lines, parks and rooftops at night.
  • The light beacon also helped with visibility of the drone during daytime and nighttime flights.

Lessons for other agencies

The ASU learned many valuable lessons during the extended flights during the civil unrests.

First, during the multitude of flights, a drone crashed due to an unknown error with one of the motors on the drone. It is critical to monitor the batteries and propellers on the drones and to perform maintenance on the drones.

Second, the Mavic 2 Enterprise worked great with the dual cameras, however, a drone with a zoom camera in a compact size would have helped greatly to help spot potential agitators for the Incident Command and officers on the ground. The Mavic 2 Zoom is a drone the ASU may purchase in the future.

The FWPD ASU response would not have been possible without the help of the Fort Wayne Fire Department’s Arson Investigator sUAS pilots. During the protests, FWPD ASU sUAS pilots were working extended shifts, and the response from the team would not have been possible without the help of the additional pilots. Therefore, it is vital that agencies looking to develop a drone team cultivate mutual aid agreements or relationships with other agencies utilizing drones in day-to-day operations.

In closing, the FWPD ASU has had the wonderful opportunity to responsibly grow and develop this capability within a forward-thinking administration. Ultimately, the ASU strives to consistently seek and develop capabilities, refine common sense processes and procedures, and make responsible use of agency resources to deliver an increasingly better quality of law enforcement service to public safety partners and the community of which ASU serves.

For further questions regarding our public safety drone program, call 260/427-2385 or email fwpdasu@cityoffortwayne.org.

NEXT: Integrating laser scanning and UAV data gives investigators a new 3D view


About the authors
Sergeant Rod Bradtmueller has served with the Fort Wayne Police Department for 26 years. He has been a supervisor/sergeant for operations division in Southeast Quadrant for 13 years and a supervisor/sergeant for the FWPD Air Support Unit for three years. He is a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Pilot (sUAS Pilot) and served with the Indiana Army National Guard for 15 years with a one-year deployment to Iraq in 2003.

Officer Trent Hullinger has served with the Fort Wayne Police Department as a patrol officer for six years and as a patrol officer for FWPD Air Support Unit for 10 months. He is a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Pilot (sUAS Pilot) and an FWPD Peer Support Team Member. He has a master’s in emergency management and homeland security with a focus on biosecurity threat management from Arizona State University (2019) and a bachelor’s in public affairs with specialization in criminal justice from Indiana University (2007).

Additional collaboration and supporting knowledge for this article was provided by FWPD Officers Steve Hus, Mike Hickman, Matt Rowland, Matt Crawford, Bobby Lemon, Deputy Chief Martin Bender, Captain Scott Berning and Lieutenant Jon Bowers.

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