The Brookhaven, Ga. Police Department (BPD) has created a First Responder Drone Program. The department’s program proposal was approved at the Oct. 27 City Council regular business meeting.
The concept is the first of its kind east of the Mississippi, and is patterned after a national model created in Chula Vista, Calif. It is aimed at providing an efficient and effective way of gathering critical law enforcement information to respond to calls for service, emergency situations, or to conduct criminal investigations. The department’s new “sky force” will initially consist of four drones (also known as unmanned aerial systems or UAS) equipped with different state-of-the-art technologies.
“This new BPD program has the potential of becoming one of the department’s most important tools in improving situational awareness for our officers, de-escalating dangerous situations and providing enhanced protection for our law enforcement team and the community,” said Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst. “It will provide a transformational method of policing, increase officer and community safety, and reduce overall police response times.”
Presently the BPD relies on the DeKalb County Police and Georgia State Patrol Aviation Unit for manned aerial capability via a traditional gasoline-powered helicopter. This reliance can take 30 minutes for the helicopter to arrive at the scene and there is no assurance of its deployment availability. It is also cost prohibitive for the BPD to purchase and maintain its own aircraft.
“Now, rather than enter a crime scene with active danger, officers can send in a drone to gather critical information,” noted BPD Lt. Abrem Ayana. “Currently, officers are forced to rely on third-hand information passed through dispatch from 911 where the caller is, understandably, often unreliable and emotional. For incidents where the drone is first on the scene, the average response time could be as little as 90 seconds.”
Samples of information that can be fed to officers via drones during those first few moments include providing an overhead view of an incident area for ground personnel safety, help in safely clearing the interior of buildings, provide detailed documentation of the crime or accident scene, and assist in searching for lost or missing persons.
The four drones initially comprising the BPD UAS sky force each have their own unique capabilities for use on an “as needed” basis:
- DJI Matrice 300 RTK - would be the flagship of the UAS unit. It is the latest and most capable UAS platform and is capable of flight times up to 55 minutes and will be equipped with a state-of-the-art Zenmuse H20T camera capable of thermal imaging. It is also equipped with a Wingsland Z15 Gimbal spotlight with 10,200-lumen output.
- DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual - is well known for its civilian and public sector use. It can be rapidly deployed on scene and is capable of flight times up to 29 minutes. It is also equipped with a thermal imaging camera and can be outfitted with a spotlight and loudspeaker.
- Autel EVO II - is the leader in picture quality and flight intelligence. Capable of flight times up to 45 minutes, it is equipped with a camera capable of supporting video resolutions up to 6k. It will become the BPD’s latest state-of-the-art tool for photographing and documenting crime scenes.
- DJI Mavic Mini - will be used for department training. Through a partnership with Skyfire Consulting in Decatur, they will conduct startup training of all BPD drone pilots, help with obtaining the required FAA certifications, establish safety programs and department policies and ongoing training of BPD officers.
In addition to the four drones, the program will also include the Motorola Aerial Suite that will allow the BPD to manage their drone fleet, control video feeds, and view alerts directly from the department’s public safety operations. All evidence is stored and saved for a specified time and follow the same privacy protocols consistent with officer body cameras.
Drones can be sent to disturbance calls ahead of ground units to determine whether a disturbance is actually occurring and if it merits sending an officer to have contact with citizens should the prospect of coronavirus be a factor.
“This year, COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death among law enforcement personnel nationwide,” Ayana added. “During the pandemic, drones will significantly reduce officer interaction with the public while still maintaining community policing efforts. As remotely piloted devices, the drones are naturally effective at minimizing human interactions, which is crucial when the same officers meant to safeguard the communities can potentially become vectors for the virus to spread.”