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article / June 12, 2023

How modern drones are revolutionizing public safety while protecting privacy

Drones in law enforcement, fire, campus security and corrections can keep communities safe and secure

You may have watched drones put on a fireworks-like lightshow in the night sky, enjoyed movies that used them to capture beautiful aerial cinematography, or even flown one recreationally. Drones, also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), are increasingly common across industries, but one of their most promising uses is for public safety operations.

Today, roughly 20% of US state and local law enforcement agencies have implemented drone programs, with interest growing as more communities witness firsthand the public benefits of these programs. The aerial situational awareness provided by drone technology makes it an indispensable tool for public safety officials as they safeguard their communities.

The role of drones in public safety

New applications for drone technology are continuously emerging. Here are some of their most impactful uses in public safety today:

Search and rescue

Firefighters already trust drones to provide aerial views of structure fires. Using thermal imaging, these same drones can quickly find victims who may be trapped under rubble or obscured by smoke. And in cases where wildfires burn far from populated areas, drones allow responders to more accurately track their progress and intervene where necessary.

This combination of advanced imaging technology and unmatched aerial awareness makes drones the perfect tool for search and rescue operations, especially in wilderness areas that would otherwise be time-consuming to fully canvas. In the fall of 2022, Bullitt County Sheriff’s Deputies used a drone to locate a young woman who had gone missing in the woods. After hours of fruitless searching by her family members, it took “about 15 minutes” for the drone’s operator to find the incapacitated young woman and dispatch responders to her location.

Traffic accident reconstruction

One of the most compelling uses of drones in law enforcement is to perform traffic accident reconstruction. With a few minutes’ worth of aerial sweeps around a scene, a drone can capture a detailed 3D model of an accident that investigators can refer back to for detailed perspectives from any angle.

The unparalleled level of detail captured by drone technology means greater accountability and quicker justice for the victims of accidents. Increased speed of reconstruction means wrecks can be cleared away faster, reducing the risk of further accidents and facilitating the return of normal traffic. But drones are useful for much more than keeping traffic moving smoothly.

Drones as first responders

The most critical resources in any emergency situation are information and time. The sooner law enforcement, fire, and EMS professionals know what they’re dealing with, the sooner they can dispatch the resources needed to resolve the situation quickly and safely.

In a traditional emergency situation, a 911 call comes in and is dispatched to officers, then the 911 operator gathers more information from the caller if possible. Unfortunately, the last few years have put our nation’s law enforcement and public safety system under massive strain. Staffing shortages due to shrinking application numbers and a greater number of departing officers means officers are being stretched thinner and thinner by demands from around their community. And this strain in turn means slower response times in some situations.

Thankfully, the rapid emergence of Drone as First Responder (DFR) programs across the country is helping departments multiply the impact of their existing forces with high-tech and privacy-friendly solutions.

DFR programs provide unprecedented situational awareness by allowing public safety agencies to remotely deploy and operate drones in emergencies, giving first responders a real-time view of what’s happening before they arrive on-scene. This real-time awareness results in faster response times and improved decision making. The Chula Vista Police Department, which deployed the nation’s first Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program, reduced their average emergency response time to under two minutes – this is less than half the national average for ground-based units. The agency’s DFR mission count now exceeds 14,000 – about 25% of which were resolved without the need to deploy officer units.

Large events and campus security

Drones enhance campus safety by providing efficient situational awareness during large-scale events like football games, move-in/out, and graduations. Campus police are tasked with managing the security and safety of large crowds concentrated on campus during such events. Drones enable officers to monitor traffic and secure large crowds with real-time situational awareness, an advantage over ground-based monitoring. In case of an incident, drones can quickly arrive on scene, offering a comprehensive view before officers' arrival. Livestreaming conveys information to command staff, facilitating effective communication with on-site officers for efficient incident resolution.

Correctional security

Correctional facilities are facing a new challenge in the form of drone contraband operations: Smugglers are increasingly using drones to bring drugs and other illicit materials over prison walls where they can be retrieved by inmates. Not only does this make facilities less safe, it also leaves the communities around them at greater risk of criminal operations. Unfortunately, as personal drone usage becomes more common, these illegal enterprises will be harder to cut off at the source.

One solution? Using drones on the public safety side to do more with less. Automated aerial patrols could make attempts to sneak contraband over prison walls much more difficult to pull off, while not further dividing correctional officers' attention. Additionally, Nevada correction officials plan to use drones to track down inmates in cases of escape attempts. For prisoner unrest within the walls of a facility, aerial drones instantly create an “eye in the sky” that reminds inmates their actions are being documented, without placing corrections officers in potentially dangerous positions.

Protecting privacy

In terms of privacy and proper adherence to the Fourth Amendment, the only real difference between a remotely-operated drone and an officer equipped with a body-worn camera is flight. All the information gathered by drones in a law enforcement capacity is subject to the same stringent privacy and transparency standards applied to any other means of police information gathering. Detailed records for every flight document the drone's mission time, path, telemetry data and even the direction and zoom of the drone’s camera.

Further still, DFR best practices keep drone cameras pointed forward until they arrive on scene. Remote operators are trained to gather only information and recordings relevant to the incident response and then return to the drone’s base station. These responsible and proactive measures have facilitated the implementation of Drone as First Responder (DFR) programs at a rate much faster than traditional drone programs.

Building toward a safer future

We’ve addressed how public safety drone operations are built to preserve privacy, and how these operations enable faster and more effective responses from first responders. But rest assured, drone technology is not meant to cause upheaval in how public safety officials interact with their communities on a daily basis. Rather, drones are simply a new, effective and adaptable tool to ensure community members and public safety alike can live safely and securely.

To learn more about how Axon’s end-to-end drone solution improves outcomes for public safety institutions and communities, please contact the Axon Air team.