As more public safety agencies look to aerial drones as a tool to use to help with search and rescue, fire, or even law enforcement operations, there’s a real possibility that they could end up biting off more than they can chew if they’re not properly trained in using the equipment or the myriad regulations between local, state, and federal governments regarding the use of unmanned aerial systems.
In a May 2018 report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, it was estimated that at least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency services agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones.
Public safety agencies are less likely to run into problems than commercial operations when it comes to receiving approval for flights – especially when they’re being used in situations like natural disaster response, firefighting, or search and rescue. However, many of these agencies still need to communicate with other agencies performing operations, especially when they are near other air traffic, including manned aircraft.
Robotics Business Review recently spoke with Chad Tyson, a principal at Evans Inc. and program coordinator at the company’s PropelUAS division, about the growing use of aerial drones in public safety.
Evans worked with the Loudoun County, Va., Sheriff’s Department’s participation in the Project Lifesaver program, an international organization that helps protect and quickly locate individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering. Founded in 1999 in Chesapeake, Va., the program has grown worldwide, and has rescued more than 3,500 individuals through the use of monitoring devices and trained emergency responses. Using unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as part of the search and rescue group has contributed lately to the success in finding individuals.
Q: How did Evans get involved with the sheriff’s department to use aerial drones in the Project Lifesaver program?
Tyson: The sheriff’s office got a grant for their drone program and went out and bought the Project Lifesaver apparatus for the bottom of their drones. They had been using the ground base and the one on a helicopter from a neighboring jurisdiction, but they wanted to have their own device that they could use.
They bought everything and then they said, ‘We don’t know how to actually know how to get our program off the ground’ in terms of regulations. So we came in and said to them, ‘We can help you figure out how you’re going to operate, to determine what regulatory vehicles to use in order to be a safe operator in the national airspace system, and to make sure you’re compliant with all the regulations.’
The opportunities, and regulatory challenges of drone programs
Q: What are lots of public safety agencies unaware of when they decide they want to implement aerial drones into their operations?
Tyson: One of the things we try to relate to people who are starting up a UAS program – especially police departments, fire departments, local and state governments – is when you’re starting a UAS program, you’re actually building an aviation program. It may not necessarily be the same as if you went out and bought a helicopter, but a lot of the same practices and principles that manned aviation has, you will have to have.
So in the case of the sheriff’s department, they didn’t know how to set that up, as well as take their training that they took online, and how to relay that into real-world scenarios. So we came in and helped them figure out the regulatory space for them to operate. We’re close to Washington, D.C., which has quite a few restrictions, so that was a further complication that they were concerned with. We helped them decipher that by using our regulatory knowledge in picking the right way to operate.
Q: How aware are these public safety agencies of the regulations? Do you think it’s more often a case that they see others using drones and go, “Oh, that’s cool, let’s go use that here.”
Tyson: I think it’s a mixed bag of that. I know there are some agencies that have done exactly that – they went out, bought a bunch of things that looked cool at Best Buy and started their own program. They’ve been successful in some areas, but in other areas they’ve not been necessarily compliant with the letter of the law as far as some regulations are concerned.
Q: Have agencies become better informed more recently, particularly with the FAA and its Part 107 rules that came out in 2016?
Tyson: As we’ve had a couple of years with it, the answers to people’s questions are becoming clearer, as people have had time to put their heads around the regulations to figure out what they mean, but they’ve also been leaning on the industry as a whole to help educate them.
If you’re going out and spending $100,000 on a piece of equipment, the manufacturers have figured out that they should give some kind of semblance of what they should be doing and how they should operate. In 2015 and 2016, you went out and spent $100,000 on an expensive UAS system, they basically gave it to you and said, ‘Here, good luck.” So the industry is maturing as a whole, and that is helping us, but there are still a lot of unknowns.
Q: What other things could complicate things for public safety agencies?
Tyson: Any time you have legislation vs. regulation vs. law and statutes it can get complicated. Unfortunately, UAS is even murkier, as a lot of jurisdictions are trying to find ways to create their own laws around them that may either skirt or be in conflict with federal regulations. We may be getting a little bit smarter on the federal regulations on how they need to operate, but there’s always going to be an extra layer where you have to dig a little deeper to see if there are other things that could be impacted.
In the state of Virginia, for example, UAS could only be used by law enforcement for search and rescue types of operations, without a warrant. If you wanted to go use it for a hostage situation, you’d have to first go obtain a warrant, and be specific about the time, place, and what the intent was in order to use the drone.
Having to know the state law that could possibly impact how you can operate is an extra layer that we have to go through, whereas in manned aviation, you follow the federal regulations, and states aren’t going out and putting laws on the books that limit how people can fly aircraft.
Q: A lot of training programs are private or small operations. What’s the level of awareness or compliance that the training outfits have with different jurisdictions? If we were going to start a drone operation for a local police or fire department and we got them some online training, how much can the departments expect that these training or certification programs are aware of the regulations?
Tyson: The one thing that we do that the sheriff’s department involved with the Project Lifesaver program really keyed in on was this – we take the local jurisdiction into consideration when we’re building our training programs. We customize our training to the geographic area of which the agency or organization operates, with their same mission sets in mind. We’re not going to go to a fire department and then teach them how to do nice real-estate shots with a UAS, because to them it doesn’t matter.
An online program – they’re going to give you a canned training program: here’s the book, this is what you need to know to pass the test. Memorize it, you’ll pass it, you’ll get your license, and you’re good to go. Some are a little bit more in depth than that, but in most online or computer-based training, that’s the heart of what they’re doing – they’re teaching you enough to be able to pass whatever certification exam you need to take, and it’s not going to give you that operational knowledge.
Where the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department is – they have things from countryside with mountains all the way to urban areas next to major airports. Those are very different places in which to operate, and giving them some insight into how the regulations affect how they can operate in those areas, what types of weather, and other types of air traffic they may have to contend with – those are all important information for teaching new pilots. You’re not going to get that granularity with an online training course.
Advances in drone technology saving lives, helping public safety agencies
Q: What do you see as the main benefits of using UAS by public safety agencies?
Tyson: In general we’ve seen three or four agencies in the Washington, D.C., area that are involved in either search and rescue or fire rescue – in addition to having a UAS that can save a life, like through Project Lifesaver, but to also protect a life from being in danger. For a fire department, being able to have a UAS that can go out and take measurements and thermal imaging in areas that a human couldn’t really go, or they’d have to go into the fire to get that level of granularity – they can now do with a UAS. They’ve now prevented a life from being in danger, from being caught in that fire. It’s definitely a tool that has great potential to not only save someone that is actively needing a rescue or some other type of life-threatening situation, but it’s also preventing people from going into situations that could cause fatal injury to them.
I think some other benefits depend on the type of agency that’s using a UAS. For police departments, when there’s an accident and they need to process the scene, it takes hours upon hours for people on foot to go through and fully process an accident scene. Someone did a study that for every hour that a lane of I-95 was shut down, it was some ridiculous amount of money that was not brought to the economy. You take that to a place like Washington, D.C., and you have to shut down a highway in that area because there’s an accident that you have to shut down for four or five hours – how much economic loss is that? By deploying a UAS that could do the same job in 30 minutes that would take a team of people two or three hours to do, you’re influencing the economy by possibly hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars depending on where it is.
Q: With drone hardware, are you happy with what’s currently available, or does there still need to be some hardware improvements?
Tyson: We stay agnostic to the hardware and software depending on what the client’s requirements are – a lot of the hardware out there right now is good for what they need to do. Battery life is probably the biggest area that needs to be improved – we always need better battery density. We currently have fairly inexpensive off-the-shelf systems that cost less than $5,000, with usually about 30 minutes or less of operating time on a battery. When you get to the $50,000 to $100,000 units, some of them have up to 40 minutes of battery life, and then there are electric and more traditional fuels options. The longer we can get hardware to stay up in the air, the more it can do, the more good it can do.
Q: With longer battery life, do you think that would enable other operations?
Tyson: I think having longer flight times are the next area that we want to see improve because that’s going to enable missions to stay up longer. IT’s also going to be one of the other enablers for beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights. Right now if you have a unit that can fly up to 20 minutes, how far can you really go? The answer is not really far. Maybe a mile or two.
I’ve been in situations in another country that does not have the same types of regulations that we have here, where we looked to see how far we could fly – and the most we got round trip was about 14,000 feet with the winds and everything. So you’re looking at a little under three miles round trip – it’s not very far before the batteries just have enough juice to come back safely. As we get longer flight times you get more realistic beyond visual line of sight.
Q: What is your goal for working with groups like Project Lifesaver and the sheriff’s department?
Tyson: It’s been extremely beneficial for them, as they’ve been able to locate individuals much faster than they could have by foot or relying on traditional air assets. By keeping in communications with the officers that use this, the training we provide them with situational and specific locations can help them conceptualize how they need to operate – and it helps them to learn enough to become their own trainers.
Our goal isn’t to have to go back there and train them all the time – our goal is to train somebody or an organization, get them up and flying, and instill enough of a knowledge base to get them operating to where they feel they can provide training themselves. We’ve been really proud of the work we do with them because of the success they’ve had in rescuing people – three to date in Loudoun County – that they would have either not have rescued in time, or would have taken a much longer time to find them.