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The path to implementing a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program

The process can be daunting, but expert guidance is close at hand

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Attend “A new era: Aerial response and making DFR a reality” – a live keynote happening on September 20 – to experience the exciting announcement of the next evolution in DFR.


Sponsored by Skydio

By Police1 BrandFocus Staff

Nationwide, law enforcement agencies are facing staffing shortages like we’ve never seen before. While many departments are struggling to increase staffing, the challenge is forcing forward-thinking departments to take advantage of modern technology solutions to assist and scale their most valuable resource: quality people.

Add technology to your tools

One piece of the technology puzzle that fits with departments of all sizes is drones. As experts in the field of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and with subject matter experts who were law enforcement officers and drone operators themselves, Skydio seeks to provide law enforcement agencies with an all-in-one package to get their drone program off the ground.

Skydio has long recognized that having a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program has many benefits to both police departments and the community. In answering community calls for de-escalation, having the eye in the sky helps to slow the response down to buy valuable time and provide officers with the distance and shielding between themselves and a person of interest to safely open lines of communication.

The use of drones allows for real-time information during in-progress and/or extremely volatile incidents. Drones also give officers an eye on the incident from a safe distance to gather information and assist them with making sound tactical decisions that reduce the risk of injury to the officers and suspects alike.

“It’s about decreasing response times, increasing situational awareness, and obtaining better intelligence to de-escalate and improve outcomes,” said Fritz Reber, head of public safety integration at Skydio and a former Chula Vista, California Police Department captain responsible for spearheading the agency’s DFR program.

Patrol-Led Deployment as the next step in your agency’s drone program

To date, only a handful of pioneering agencies with sophisticated drone programs have evolved to full-fledged DFR – but they are charting the course for the future that other agencies can follow.

Often agencies with drone programs deploy drones within specialized units and/or specialized support teams for purposes like crime scene documentation and drawn-out situations such as a standoffs, where a fast response time is less critical. But in incidents where seconds can mean the difference between life and death for those involved, rapid deployment of a drone can drastically change the course and outcome of many common situations law enforcement officers are called upon to handle.

Equipping officers with drones at the patrol level for use in everyday patrol operations – a method the Oklahoma City Police Department calls “Patrol-Led Deployment” – provides a method for rapid and effective aerial support during developing or in-progress incidents. This drone-in-the-trunk method leads to more rapid deployment in more places by officers trained in drone operation, offering first eyes on a developing incident from the air before ground units even arrive.

Patrol-Led Deployment (officer-deployed UAS) offers many of the benefits of a DFR but without the need for designated launch sites or complex drone operations. It can also be used in tandem with specialized units undertaking more complex drone operations and DFR, resulting in better coverage and information gathering during critical incidents.

Benefits of Patrol-Led Deployment (officer-deployed UAS) include:

  • UAS in all patrol cars.
  • Immediate aerial intelligence and information gathering.
  • Streaming integration.

For agencies without DFR Programs, Patrol-Led Deployment is the best way to have situational awareness at the earliest possible moment. DFR requires significant resources and special permissions, and for many agencies with large jurisdictions, launching from fixed sites isn’t practical. Those agencies wanting the benefits of DFR can get most of the same benefits by moving from Patrol-Led Deployment to Patrol-Led DFR.

Patrol-Led DFR enables greater drone and pilot sophistication with launch flexibility

Patrol-Led DFR combines elements of Patrol-Led Deployment and DFR to allow remote pilots to virtually respond immediately to incidents anywhere at anytime. Patrol-Led DFR offers increased flexibility and ease of use in the field by equipping patrol vehicles with drones that are quick and easy to deploy, but with a key distinction – the drones can be remotely operated. This capability frees up the officer at the scene from having to fly the drone. Similar to full DFR, this makes a drone program much more scalable, providing the benefits of overwatch on more incidents across the entire city or county.

A patrol officer with the right drone can merely prep the drone for launch or, in many cases, launch and fly the drone and then allow at any time a remote pilot to take control of the drone flight. Allowing a credentialed remote pilot to commandeer operation of the drone removes the need for the patrol officer to maintain visual contact on the drone and enables them to engage in other activity on scene.

A patrol-launched drone that is remote-controlled by a licensed pilot can offer a higher level of UAS sophistication similar to dock-launched, remote-controlled DFR, such as the ability to:

  1. Be flown in obstacle-rich environments without need for line-of-sight.
  2. Be controlled remotely with the video streamed broadly.
  3. Be equipped with a sensor that can see details from high above, day and night.
  4. Fly in high winds and inclement weather.
  5. Take off anywhere anytime (no geofencing) and fly in GPS-denied environments.
  6. Allow the addition of software features and skills to enable ongoing advanced operations and use cases.
  7. Obtain FAA permission to fly beyond the visual line of sight.

Aerial intelligence of the future is in range now

Launching from the field, below the tree line, is a high-risk endeavor for most drones. A remote operator typically has no ability to see the airspace so flying in obstacle-rich environments is likely to result in a crash. Skydio Autonomy solves this problem.

Skydio’s next generation of intelligent drones are equipped with a 360-degree view camera system paired with AI-driven obstacle-avoidance software so drones can fly based on vision, not GPS. This means they aren’t restricted to satellite range – and can self-fly anywhere they need to go. Not only are Skydio drones easy to fly the traditional method, allowing officers to fly confidently with a just few hours of training, but they are perfect for Patrol-Led DFR operations.

Where to start?

Wherever your agency is in your drone program, there are steps and workflows you can take to begin implementing a DFR program at a smaller scale that you can build from.

A big step in initiating any DFR program – outside of just scrutinizing the hardware and software requirements and other options – is looking toward the community you serve and determining how a DFR program would be best implemented with the full trust and buy-in of both citizens and elected officials. This is a crucial step by which you can demonstrate transparency and generate trust.

Many questions typically arise, including the type(s) of data generated, how it will be stored in accordance with the law(s), how public disclosure requests for drone footage will be handled, privacy considerations of the public and, most important, how and when your drones will be deployed. These are just some of the items that must be addressed for the sake of trust and transparency and to ensure ongoing community support for the drone program.

This crucial first step can seem daunting if you aren’t armed with the proper knowledge and experts to get your DFR program started the right way. To assist with this, Skydio not only covers the hardware and software ends of the DFR program, but also provides agencies with Skydio Regulatory Services.

Get expert help from Skydio Regulatory Services

The path to DFR can be long and complicated – but you don’t have to travel alone.

Skydio Regulatory Services gives your agency access to a full-service team of in-house law enforcement DFR program experts to provide assistance in laying the groundwork for a successful DFR program, including obtaining the appropriate waivers needed to enable Patrol-Led DFR operations. The team includes VP of Regulatory and Policy Affairs Brendan Groves, Senior Director of Aviation Regulatory Affairs Jenn Player, Senior Regulatory Program Manager Jakee Stoltz, and others whose combined experience provide you with the ultimate UAS package and experience vetted and supported by experts in their fields.

Experienced drone operators within law enforcement like Reber, retired NYPD TARU pilot Deepu John, and others also advise agencies on how to set up and operate their program based upon the “The Five C’s” developed in partnership with DRONERESPONDERS, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the use of drones by first responders. The Five C’s are a roadmap for agencies who wish to build a sustainable drone program that maintains the trust of the community.

These “Five C’s” are:

  1. Community Engagement and Transparency
  2. Civil Liberties and Privacy Protection
  3. Common Operating Procedures
  4. Clear Oversight and Accountability
  5. Cybersecurity

These principles offer a map to navigate the common pitfalls and overlooked items necessary to have a successful DFR program. In addition to the “Five C’s,” Skydio has its own unique engagement and responsible use principles so its customers can be assured the company walks the talk by adhering to rigorous ethical guidelines for the responsible use of drones.

An American company with accessible local representatives that are here to help

While having the hardware to enable Patrol-Led DFR is a great way to start, where many agencies fall behind is selecting drone vendors who do not offer the ongoing support necessary to keep their DFR programs up and running. Skydio fills that void by providing ongoing customer and technological service to assist your agency with your ongoing advanced operations. As a U.S.-based company, Skydio has accessible local representatives that can provide guidance for you to grow a safe, effective drone program positioned for advanced operations.

“Skydio is the largest drone provider in providing not just the drone, but all the support factors and functions that go with a law enforcement drone program,” said Reber.

Skydio drones also integrate with third-party software, so, for instance, agencies that utilize Axon technology can maintain a CJIS-compliant chain of custody via their integration with Axon portals for secure storage of drone footage.

To establish an ongoing replacement and budget program, Skydio’s SAFE (Skydio Assured Future Equipment) Program is available to agencies to provide budgeting options, hardware refreshes and ongoing updates for a full five years. With SAFE, your UAS operators can focus on the needs of your community and leave the rest to Skydio. This ensures that your agency is always using the most up-to-date technology and systems possible.

Skydio, along with law enforcement agency partners, is working to pioneer Patrol-Led DFR operations across the country, paving a path for all agencies to follow and enabling DFR operations for every day, today. With hardware, software and support operations built by and around experience from actual law enforcement officers, you can trust that Skydio understands the needs of law enforcement and is building a safer, more informed and transparent future of drone operations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking technologies making DFR a reality now. Click here to watch the on-demand keynote, A new era: Aerial response and making DFR a reality.