By Tom Mangan for Police1 BrandFocus
The next phase of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) takes drones out of the squad car trunk and moves them onto the front lines of emergency first response. Drones as First Responder (DFR) programs launch drones from a fixed position, enabling a quicker evaluation of a situation before officers arrive. A police department in a city northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, illustrates why it’s a compelling investment.
The city is Brookhaven, Georgia, whose 95 sworn officers serve a diverse population of about 60,000 people. Brookhaven is a prosperous, mostly suburban community. While violent crime is rare, property crimes like car theft and shoplifting make sure patrol officers have plenty of work to do.
In many cases, speeding a drone to an incident scene can help show whether a police presence is even needed. And if police officers get summoned, DFR gives them a critical, eye-in-the-sky perspective that reduces the risks of escalation, improves the odds of capturing suspects and strengthens community trust.
THE CHALLENGE: GETTING EYES ON AN INCIDENT SCENE SOONER
Brookhaven became a city shortly after a November 2012 ballot initiative. Voter displeasure with the county police in their unincorporated community was among the issues driving the incorporation vote.
The city launched a new police force, where Abrem Ayana rose to the rank of lieutenant after coming on board in 2015. “I was a night shift commander and had so much to say about how we weren’t able to catch people at night because they could see us before we saw them,” Ayana recalled. “They would run. We didn’t have a helicopter readily available to us.”
Ayana knew putting drones in the skies over Brookhaven could help. Initially, he supported the drone-in-the-trunk model – giving patrol officers a path to aerial visibility of incident scenes. But while formulating a pitch for the drone plan to city leaders, Ayana learned how Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego, California, was pioneering the concept of DFR. His police chief liked the idea and won over the city council. This was during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when emergency personnel needed extra insight at 911 scenes to reduce human contact and help limit the virus’s spread.
“That laid the foundation for us to be the first outside of California and what many say is the second in the nation to have a DFR program,” Ayana said.
THE TECHNOLOGY: DRONES WITH ADVANCED REMOTE-CONTROL SOFTWARE
Brookhaven uses drones from DJI and other manufacturers controlled by CAPE, Motorola Solutions’ drone-control and video livestream software solution. “There was no other solution that allowed you to remotely operate drones like CAPE did and livestream it,” Ayana recalled.
CAPE has two fundamental operational functions: piloting the drone through an airspace and operating a gimbal-attached camera. Brookhaven’s DFR operations team consists of three full-time personnel who operate the drones from two strategically placed launch locations. One officer remotely controls the camera from a control center at police headquarters while the others serve as rooftop pilots in command of each aircraft.
Many wrinkles had to be ironed out: The drones had to be able to fly below the airspace required by a nearby general-aviation airport, which keeps a high volume of private planes and helicopters in flight. Operators had to acquire Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) licenses and get full training to prevent in-air collisions and avoid crashing the drones into things like trees and telephone poles.
Fortunately, the CAPE software has built-in controls that geofence the flight-operations boundaries and establish upper and lower vertical-height limits. The software also can be set to automatically avoid permanent structures.
FAA updated its regulations to allow DFR. The new rules free drone-operating police forces to earn a certificate of approval (COA) for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations (see the Motorola Solutions Blog for an in-depth explanation).
“That’s what you need to really enable drone as a first responder,” said Norm Serrano, senior solutions architect at Motorola Solutions and a longtime drone expert with CAPE. “Because you don’t want to just fly half a block away – you want to be able to fly two miles away and respond to calls for service.”
Police forces also need public support for DFR. Residents want reassurance that drones are used only in active emergencies and aren’t invading people’s privacy. Ayana conferred with representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union to address these kinds of issues. “We had a roundtable discussion with the ACLU and made a lot of adjustments to our policy based on their concerns,” Ayana said.
For instance, residents can view recent drone flight details online via Brookhaven’s Drone Flight History page provided by CAPE. And policies and procedures are in place dictating how long to retain video footage if it does not produce evidence required in a criminal case.
THE RESULTS: SMARTER USE OF OFFICERS’ TIME AND TAXPAYERS’ MONEY
A drone doesn’t get stuck in traffic – it takes a direct route to wherever it’s needed. This can shave critical minutes off the response time in an emergency. Moreover, an officer back at the police station can view a live stream to determine the need to dispatch patrol cars to the scene.
Ayana cautioned against expecting DFR to improve local crime statistics. “It doesn’t reduce crime,” he said. “How could something that doesn’t arrest anybody, that is not used proactively to go out and find or detect people who are looking to do criminal activity, reduce crime? It can’t. What it does do is allow us to use our already scarce human resources a lot more wisely.”
That means not wasting officers’ time – and the public’s money – dispatching patrol cars to incidents that do not require police. It also provides a subtle tool to avoid unnecessary run-ins with police that undermine the public’s trust.
How so? Ayana describes an incident where suspects from North Carolina were driving through Brookhaven when a traffic camera caught their car’s license tag number and alerted local officers, who found the car in a local shopping center parking lot. One man got arrested at the car while another was in a nearby store.
The CAPE software showed officers a suspect running away behind the shopping center. Thanks to the live video feed, the department tracked him to a wooded area where the K9 unit had him in custody within minutes. In the pre-drone era, officers might’ve sent out a vague description of the suspect (clothing, height, ethnicity, etc.). Multiple innocent residents might have gotten caught up in the pursuit, fueling resentment of law enforcement.
Almost everybody wins, however, when a drone camera leads officers straight to the suspect. “The only person who got stopped and inconvenienced that day was him,” Ayana said.
For more information on CAPE, visit www.motorolasolutions.com/CAPE.