So, your agency has decided to look into starting a drone program. From the outset this might seem like a daunting initiative to get off the ground. However, solutions are found more easily when you know where to start and what initial questions to ask.
Before starting a drone program, you're going to want to have community support. If you try to start it “under the radar”, there is a good chance you will face backlash. The successful programs we have seen have engaged the community from the start. When it comes to the community, you'll want to:
- Educate - there are a lot of misconceptions about drones. Comparing them to helicopters can be a useful way to frame the conversation, both from a privacy level and from cost perspective.
- Share draft policies that address privacy concerns.
- Develop a media and community engagement plan - Show the capabilities of the technology to media/community, clarify the appropriate use of the system, explain data retention and FOIA requests, and build a public relations strategy that anticipates questions and provides transparent answers.
Policy, Certifications and Guidelines
If you don't have a manned air unit or pilots at your agency, the FAA requirements will probably seem overwhelming at first. Two questions to answer right off the bat: What is Part 107 and will my pilots need it?; What is a COA, and how do I get one for my agency?
- Part 107 - These are the FAA rules for flying Small Unmanned Aerial Systems, more commonly called drones. If you get a COA (see below), getting a Remote Pilot Certificate that demonstrates you passed the Part 107 FAA testing isn't absolutely required, but we still highly recommend it for your pilots. It's a great foundation and it minimizes the need to duplicate the training within your agency.
- COA - This stands for Certificate of Authorization and is available to public safety entities. A COA grants you additional flexibility that you don't get under the Part 107, but is a longer process, so you want to get familiar with your needs and start the process early. Examples of authorizations that can be obtained include flying at night, flying over people, flying with multiple UAS simultaneously, and flying beyond visual line of sight (BLOS).
Potential drone usage and Buying the Right Hardware
Each agency is unique in this regard, but it's something you'll want to map out before making a purchasing decision. These are the most common categories we have seen:
- Search and Rescue - if this is something your agency does regularly, it can be a great way to get the community comfortable with drones. For this type of scenario, you'll probably want a couple of options. First, a quick response unit. Time is of the essence, so being able to get a drone in the air quickly can make the difference. We suggest thinking of these like you would a K9 unit - have officers trained to pilot and with a portable drone in the trunk on every shift, and every beat. Today you can find smaller units that have zoom cameras and thermal capabilities. Second, you'll want a drone that can handle a more robust camera system, such as the combination of a high end FLIR thermal camera along side a high zoom optical camera. This will give you the ability to get in close and get higher resolution thermal capabilities that can spot heat signatures with more detail.
- Tactical Response (SWAT) - In those cases where you have time to prepare, bringing out the larger drones with the higher end optical systems will make the difference. Having an eye in the sky that can be directed to provide more situational awareness to the team on the ground can improve officer safety and provide additional visual access. Here you may also want an additional drone in the air, in case you get a runner. The main unit can stay over the scene and the secondary can give chase and provide information to officers on the perimeter.
- Scene reconstruction - drones can be useful for both crime scene and accident scene reconstruction. For crime scene, it can replace the expensive FARO system with a much more affordable mapping solution with acceptable loss in accuracy and increased speed. For accident scenes, you can map the area much faster and perform off-scene measurements, allowing the roads to open up much faster and keeping your investigators safer.
Finally, you will need a comprehensive set of software services to help you manage all aspects of the drone program. These include evidence management, flight management, pilot management, and mission management.
- Evidence Management - You will need a way to offload, ingest, and manage all the media recorded by the drones in a way that maintains an audit of the custody of evidence and allows you to categorize and tag them.
- Mission Management - During a mission you will need a way to watch the drone videos in real-time in tactical situations and from a central command center.
- Flight and Pilot Management - This includes tracking all the drones and flights to comply with FAA regulations and audits as well as manage certifications of your pilots easily.
It always starts with protecting life, and you can see with each of the scenarios we've mentioned, drones, and new technology help make that a reality. Today, many of the tools that are available were not built with law enforcement as the first and foremost use case. We started Axon Air to change that and build out workflows that work for you. We've just gotten started and we rely on your feedback to make this program successful.