In 2020, there are more than 1,500 public safety departments across the United States using drones as a situation awareness tool, a tool providing them with better information faster, allowing incident commanders to make more informed decisions. Most of these departments are law enforcement, from city police departments and sheriff’s offices to state patrol agencies. They all have recognized the benefits of drones. One of the major benefits is availability and cost; there are less than 500 crewed aviation departments with a helicopter or a fixed wing aircraft in the U.S. These aircraft are often very busy and not available for mutual aid in a neighboring city.
Pre- and Post-Incident Planning
Drones are not only a tool during an incident but are also extremely helpful pre-incident and post-incident. The ability to pre-plan a potential event, or pre-map a site, allows for much better planning and preparation of such events. A recent example from California is the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office using a drone to map an upcoming medical field hospital and use the 2D and 3D orthomosaic data sets for planning purposes. Post-incident work is also a commonly seen side benefit of drones. Forensic investigations that collect data with a drone after a vehicle or airplane accident, a fire scene, or even the scene of a murder, have proven to be of high value.
A great example is the use of drones in collision reconstruction and clearing an incident scene quickly. Not only does that quick clearing task reduce the risk of secondary crashes and potential death or injury to emergency responders, but it also dramatically saves time and cost. A research study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials concluded that using a drone to map a site of an accident is on average four times faster than traditional methods. That means roads can be opened up much quicker to traffic, which has a huge economic impact. The North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) said closing one lane on a two-lane highway is an estimated $8,600 in lost productivity for every hour that lane was closed, or $12,900 an hour to conduct the traditional investigation. Using a drone dropped the productivity cost to $3,600, amounting a $5,000 savings right there, on just one incident. This estimate does not include the worker costs, which would be three NCDOT crew needed for traffic control and two North Carolina Highway Patrol investigators. Besides keeping these individuals safer, using drones reduces the downtime and the cost, and allows people to get to work or home faster.
Use with Ground Robotics Units
Police departments are also using drones in indoor environments and in conjunction with established ground robotics units. That can be as part of a SWAT mission such as entering a building, or as part of an Explosive Ordinance Disposal deployment. These ground robots are large, often get stuck, or don’t always have the needed video transmission strength needed. Augmenting these deployments with drones allows for a more strategic view. Drones can fly upstairs, go into an attic, clear hallways, or land on the ground and keep a steady camera view for a very long time. They can work together with ground robotics and provide an additional view during a dangerous but tedious suspicious package situation at a mall or an airport.
Search and Rescue
Mmore than 400 people have been saved or rescued thanks to drones. Oftentimes search and rescue operations are led by law enforcement, and having that ability to fly a drone with both visible light and thermal sensors to detect heat sources has provided tremendous benefits. Sending the drone into more dangerous areas, such as cliffs or steep drops, also keeps ground teams safer and allows them to search other, less dangerous areas instead.
New Opportunities During COVID-19
The global pandemic quickly illustrated how important more efficient tools are. First responders got hit hard; not only did they have more and different tasks to take care of, but their operating procedures kept changing almost weekly and they all were hit with resource constraints, from COVID-19 infections within the department, to reassignments, to budget freezes and cuts. Departments started to use drones even more and started to think ahead of what possible scenarios they could encounter.
Linn County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon created a very simple mechanical-advantage release system to allow the delivery of prescription medication, masks, gloves, or other small supplies to infectious COVID-19 patients in quarantine at their homes. This device was made with everyday items lying around the office so it could be easily duplicated in other areas and departments.
Memorial Villages Police in Texas pre-planned autonomous drone flight routes over streets in areas that could potentially see an increase in crime. These areas could be closed business parks, warehouse, and unattended structures. Maintaining high visibility on both the ground and in the air deters crime.
Wyckoff Police Department in New Jersey utilized the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise with a speaker accessory to improve community morale; in between medical calls and quarantine checks of the township’s parks and large areas of public assemblies, the PD utilized the drone to cheer up a few children during this trying time. They would visit the homes of kids with birthdays and fly the drone with the speaker outside the home, singing “Happy Birthday” and wishing the children all the best. This was very well received by the young, as well as their parents.
Tulsa Fire Department and Chula Vista Police both utilized the drones with speakers to help with a very at-risk community. Both cities have a dense homeless population, which is often hard to reach and does not receive sufficient care or take appropriate precautions to protect themselves and others. From mapping the homeless camps, to using loudspeakers to inform the at-risk population that service stations are available for a medical check-up, free food, a hygiene kit, and some compassion, these drones allowed authorities to reach more people quicker and safer.
Improving situation awareness, providing incident commanders with better data and different views, shifts the favor of a positive outcome. That force multiplier can be the difference between saving a life or a building, or having to bring back bad news. Mitigating the risks to first responders means not only a more efficient department, but a substantial cost saving to a department and a city, not to mention the emotional impact of having fewer on-the-job injuries.
While drone use is still relatively new, the technology has already proven itself. The safety and security features are there for efficient and secure deployments.
About the Author: Romeo Durscher is the senior director of public safety integration at DJI, a manufacturer of drones and aerial photography systems.