Drones could deliver a quantum leap in situational awareness for public safety organizations.
Drones are seeing rapid adoption in a variety of industries — from news photography to real estate development to wind energy production. Their greatest impact, however, could be felt in the public safety arena, where they’ve already demonstrated the ability to help law enforcement agencies and first responders improve response times, reduce costs, and save lives.
Drone technology has advanced such that a number of public safety agencies have embraced its use in areas like search and rescue, fire fighting, and locating missing persons. According to the Center for the Study of the Drones, the number of agencies deploying drones jumped by 82% in 2017 alone.
Significant barriers to adoption still remain, however. In addition to the technological challenges, agencies must also contend with regulatory, public relations, and data management hurdles. Still, the potential to add substantive capabilities will continue to draw increasing interest from public safety stakeholders, many of whom envision a future in which drones serve a crucial function in keeping the public safe.
The Potential Impact of Drones on Public Safety
The list of potential use cases is a long one: Drones can help law enforcement officers locate missing persons, retrieve stolen property, and track down suspects fleeing from crime scenes. In Georgetown, KY, for example, the police department used a drone to identify suspects involved in local vehicle break-ins. Also equipped with thermal imaging, night vision, and an infrared camera system, Georgetown’s drone offers a peek into the future of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
In other departments around the country, drones are used for crime scene mapping and reconstructing accident scenes. The sheriff’s office in Tazewell County, IL has used drones to take aerial photographs of crashes. These images not only help officers save hours reconstructing crime and accident scenes — they can actually do a better (more detailed) job of it. The results? Roads can be reopened more quickly, traffic congestion can be mitigated, and officers can devote their time to other important tasks.
Because drones can enter locations that are otherwise inaccessible or too dangerous, they can speed up response times and help keep officers safe. In Eugene, OR, for example, drones are used to aid bomb squads, and support search and rescue missions. The nearby Eugene Springfield Fire Department deploys drones for use in the investigation of suspected arson incidents.
Drones can also be used to help public safety officials plan and respond to natural disasters. In the case of a wildfire, a drone could fly over the affected region, mapping the terrain and alerting first responders to areas where the fire is likely to spread. These capabilities could naturally prove useful in other disaster scenarios like floods or earthquakes.
The Challenges of Using Drones for Public Safety
While drones bring many benefits to law enforcement and security teams, they also carry their own set of challenges.
First: the challenge of managing the vast amounts of data that drones produce. While drones can lower the costs of data collection, public safety officials must then determine how to effectively manage it. The result is all-too-often data overload, wherein valuable information becomes a burden due to poor organization, distribution or storage.
Second: public perception of drones (and public surveillance in general). The subject has proven to be nothing if not controversial. Some civil liberties groups are concerned about what will happen to the data that drones collect. If citizens aren’t given good answers to questions around data privacy, public relations hurdles could slow down the pace at which public safety institutions are able to innovate on this technology.
Third: regulatory barriers. Several states have passed “drone legislation” which regulates their usage. While the city of Eugene has seen significant returns from their one-year drone pilot program, the initiative also has clearly-stated restrictions. The technology can be used in an information-gathering capacity only. A state-wide 2013 law regulates law-enforcement drones, prohibits arming the devices, and requires police to obtain a warrant for collecting information in some situations.
The upshot is a need to innovate wisely — only by carefully addressing these barriers can public safety officials secure the agency they need to take full advantage of drone technology.
How to Integrate Drones into Law Enforcement Operations
The good news is that many of these concerns have straightforward solutions. A study by drone provider Cape showed that despite some hesitations, people are ready to accept the use of drones by law enforcement. In fact, 94% of Americans surveyed said they believe drones can improve public safety.
The key to gaining community support is education. When people understand what exactly drones can and cannot do — as well as the regulations in place to protect citizens’ privacy, they are more likely to recognize their benefits. It’s especially important to explain to residents that drones are not used for random monitoring but to gather critical public safety information. The Cape study showed that after consumers learned about a case study involving the use of drones in law enforcement, they were twice as likely to see drones as a public safety tool, and 26% more likely to feel safer about the use of drones.
As more law enforcement agencies implement drone programs, there will be a corresponding need for software capable of managing, storing, and communicating all the data they produce. Avoiding data overload is one thing — capitalizing on the full extent of its inherent value is another. For public safety agencies to realize the full potential of drone programs, they’ll need to make drone data actionable. This is the function of a situational awareness platform: to seamlessly integrate disparate data streams into a common operational picture that empowers officers to take action.