Many people are aware of the incredible advancements in commercial drone technology. Only a few years ago, the quadcopter was a marvel of ingenuity and science. The potential for various uses spawned a myriad of ideas in the private sector, from delivering pizza to providing life-saving AEDs and EpiPens® to people in remote regions.  

Ideas often are born from necessity, so this ingenuity clearly has potential value in public safety. We are in the infancy of affordable, deployable aircraft that can and will eventually facilitate agencies to have the perspective of a helicopter. And while these resources are being used today in a purely tactical sense, deployable field drones likely will provide regular aerial support for public safety agencies. These marvels of engineering also may replace expensive manned aircraft with FLIR (thermal) cameras, night vision and crash avoidance systems.

While the everyday applications of drone use could soon become reality, a divide still exists between concept and full deployment within public safety. To bridge that gap, there are two things that must happen before tactically deployed drones are graduated to commonly used public safety tools:

1. Establish Dispatch Center Pilots

Currently, most drones are deployed at scene, requiring that someone within law enforcement drive the device to the scene to launch and fly it – this is visual line of sight (VLOS). All coordination and communications occur at the scene, which then needs to be relayed to dispatch. Flight records and video logs must be kept by the on-scene pilot for proper documentation. These records become disconnected from the incident and reporting systems unless manually entered after the fact. Dispatch center pilots would enable drones to be launched without someone physically needing to be at the scene. This establishes beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) and would dramatically increase both the opportunities for drones to be used in operations as well as the physical area able to be covered by the drone.   

2. Integrate with CAD Software

Drones could be dispatched much like how K-9 officers and bicycle patrols are dispatched to incidents. For this to be effective, CAD systems need to be able to track and monitor dispatched resources, whether it is a drone, K-9 dog or first responder. CAD systems would need to be designed and capable of dispatching a drone as a normal unit in order for reporting and incident systems to track and log its use in an incident. The CAD system must have access to protocols and flight plans in order to meet the FAA requirements for proper logging and documentation.

Once these two conditions are met and made available for widespread use, drones can be dispatched when appropriate, using the same rules as any other unit or apparatus. Until then, public safety agencies will have tactical tools that are extremely useful but difficult and time consuming to deploy.

The benefits of being in flight

The cost of maintaining and piloting large aircraft is significant to public safety agencies, and it’s typically only the larger agencies that can afford to do so. This leads to very few agencies leveraging piloted aircraft in their operations. With the advent of drone technology, however, any agency can have the same advantage of the “eye in the sky” during emergencies with less cost and risk associated with traditional manned aircraft. For example, aircraft failures that put pilot lives and the public at risk are no longer constraints to deployment since a drone is not piloted, and its size and weight are significantly lower than a piloted aircraft.

While drones already are helping with some major public safety operations, they will see wider acceptance within public safety in the next few years. For example, fire agencies use the thermal cameras on drones to locate the central, hottest part of a fire. Police and fire agencies use drones to locate people lost in the woods or to pinpoint hiding suspects. In fact, a drone’s thermal imaging was able to help the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office in Minnesota find a missing boy.

These are a few examples of what is possible today. What may be possible tomorrow could include stopping high-speed chases with electromagnetic pulse (EMP) discharge on vehicles, deploying life-saving devices like AEDs or medications and food, and keeping pace with fleeing suspects. With these benefits in mind, forward-looking agencies should look to learn more about how drone technology can maximize their resources and help bring smartly deployed innovations into their toolkit.