Rise of the Machines: The Use of Drones in Public Safety

On October 17, 2012, in News, by with SRA International

Customs and Border Protection Drone (Source: Texas Governor’s Office)

Nelson County, North Dakota Sheriff Kelly Janke knew he had a problem. While trying to serve an arrest warrant on an area farm this summer, he was chased away by three armed men brandishing rifles.

Afraid of what could be a very dangerous standoff, he called in back up. On the ground, North Dakota State Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances, and deputy sheriffs from three other counties took their positions.  Meanwhile, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Predator spy drone outfitted with sophisticated sensors scanned the 3,000 acre property from the air. Once the drone located the suspects and determined they were unarmed, reinforcements on the ground moved in and made the arrests without incident. While drones have played a more prominent role in military operations overseas, this was one of the first arrests of a U.S. citizen using the assistance of a drone.

With advancements in technology making drones smaller, lighter, and less expensive, a growing number of public safety officials see the opporutnity to leverage drones for their work. Already, CBP operates eight Predator spy drones on the northern and southwestern U.S. borders to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. In at least two dozen cases, CBP has used the drones to assist local law enforcement. Drones can fly out of sight and watch a target for 20 hours nonstop, far longer than police helicopters or manned aircraft, making drones especially useful in manhunts, hostage situations, and large-scale events. In fact, public safety officials considered using drones to monitor crowds at the this February’s Super Bowl.  Officials ultimately decided to opt for manned helicopters instead, but insist that they are continuing to consider drones for future events.  Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies in at least five states, including Texas, Florida, and Arkansas, requested permission to fly drones.

While public safety officials seek to tap into the potential benefits of drones for their work, they also are facing new policy issues around privacy, safety, and reliability. What officials are finding is while 62% of Americans approve the use of drones in military operations overseas, less than half of the public supports the use of drones by police domestically and about two-thirds of the public have expressed some privacy concerns related to the use of drones in the U.S.

For decades, U.S. courts have allowed law enforcement to conduct aerial surveillance without a warrant. They have ruled that what a person does in the open, even behind a backyard fence, can be seen from a passing airplane and is not protected by privacy laws. However, given the sophistication and high-resolution capabilities of today’s drones, opponents hold that using drones for surveillance stretches the law too much. While the debate over drones and privacy is expected to continue, so too are efforts to assess the value of drones for public safety.

The relevance of this issue in public safety is increasing.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate released a Request for Information for its Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (RAPS) project. DHS plans to invite vendors to participate in a variety of simulated, but realistic, real-world public safety scenarios, such as search and rescue and fire and hazardous spill response. These products will be evaluated against identified key performance parameters, with the hope they can support public safety in the future. As the technology evolves and public safety practitioners find new uses, drones will likely go beyond just eyes in the sky and policy will be tested.

AWARE is interested in hearing from our readers in the public safety domain. How do you think public safety can make the most out of this technology? What challenges does it pose?

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