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Adding Smart Drones to the Policing Equation

A close-up of a police drone in the air

Policing is a tough job on a good day. Officers face an array of inherent dangers on a regular basis during their patrol. But 2020 has brought additional challenges, especially with the pandemic. The risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 increases with every interaction. Likewise, protests and movements to defund the police have created additional stress for police departments in general. Understanding this, many are looking for ways to be not only more effective but also safer and at a reduced cost. And some have found a unique solution: police drones.

Police drones have been used for a number of years by thousands of police departments across the country. However, they are primary used as tools to help investigate crime scenes. Officers launch drones to provide an aerial view of a location that might help solve crimes and find evidence. But now, police departments in California and Georgia are using these technologies in new ways. Smart drones, equipped with the latest innovations, can do much more than take high-altitude picture. These drones perform tasks that an officer might do, and sometimes, they do it better.

“Almost every department has [police drones] right now. But ours, being that the drone will actually respond on calls for service that we get, they’ll usually be the eyes and ears for officers, and that’s great. It’s going to be safer for the citizens and the officers.” Police Chief Gary Yandura, Brookhaven, Georgia

New Mirroring Technology Leading the Way

Police departments are expanding the responsibilities of police drones primarily because of the introduction of new technologies. Smart drones, unlike conventional ones, are equipped with mirroring technology. Mirroring abilities allow drones to precisely track objects or individuals across terrains that may otherwise be challenging. With the press of a button, police officers can instruct smart drones to key on specific targets. This has obvious advantages during police chase situations. Likewise, some smart drones are even capable of searching inside buildings and other structures on their own. These are significant advances in drone technology that account for a renewed interest in their utility.

A group of police officers discussing donuts
Smart drones cannot do all police work, but they can do some tasks–which can free up flesh-and-blood officers to do other essential duties.

Several technology companies are involved in the manufacturing of these smart drones. Skydio is responsible for supplying some police departments in California with police drones. Shield AI is another company whose drones are capable of investigating structures independently. And DJI is a Chinese company also producing these latest technology drones. Employing the same type of automation technologies used in self-driving cars, these companies envision all police departments using them. Based on the success a handful have had so far, this prediction may indeed come true.

“If somebody calls 911, or an officer spots suspicious activity and the person conceals themselves or something, we will send a drone. But it’s not one of those [situations] where we say, ‘Hey, let’s just go send a drone and start flying around neighborhoods and looking in backyards.’” Police Lieutenant Abrem Ayana, Brookhaven, Georgia

Advantages of Smart Drones for Police

Police drones naturally offer a bird’s eye view of any investigative scene. But smart drones offer much more. The police departments currently using these technologies deploy them on a variety of emergency calls. One department’s program is labeled “Drone as First Responder,” and that’s exactly what it is. Rather than dispatching an officer, smart drones can often respond faster and with better visibility. Likewise, in the time of COVID, drones protect officers from unnecessary risks. This is a major feature of these police drones that are quite attractive.

Smart drones have other benefits for police departments as well. In general, these drones cost about $25,000 to $35,000 in price, and they require two officers involved in their use. FAA regulations require a certified drone pilot to be at the launch site and a police office at the command center. But even with these expenses, it’s generally cheaper than having actual police officers responding to emergency calls. With threats of decreased funding and a drop in police recruits, technology solutions are being welcomed. In addition to the use of AI in law enforcement agencies, smart drones offer another possible option.

“Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection. Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.” – Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU

Could Smart Drones Go Too Far?

For now, the police departments using smart drones are only allowing them to respond to emergency calls. In other words, they are not being used for general surveillance, like China did during the early phases of the pandemic. However, many are concerned that the capacity of police drones could overstep their bounds. Using drones for surveillance could be a game-changer when it comes to protecting privacy. Especially with the tracking capacities these smart drones have, anyone could be targeted and mirrored without ever committing a crime.

While police departments currently using smart drones state they have no intention of this, doubt exists. In some cities, prior approval by the city council is not required before police departments change their drone policies. In other words, police officials and potentially officers could unilaterally decide to use police drones for other activities. At a time when public trust in police behavior is waning, this is far from reassuring. For this reason, some believe greater oversight and transparency is needed.

Early Success Suggests Widespread Adoption

For police departments already employing the use of smart drones, the results look favorable. Unmanned police drones are much cheaper than manned helicopters. They are also much more adept at tracking and visualizing. Current police departments using them report drones are used in 70 percent of emergency calls. These same departments are also planning to expand these programs even further because of their success. Given this, it’s very likely more and more police organizations will embrace smart drones as a technology.


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