March 11 (UPI) -- Drones are fast becoming a preferred tool for law enforcement agencies in the United States, particularly for tricky search-and-rescue operations.
A new report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College found that 910 state and local first-responder agencies have bought drones in recent years, two-thirds of them law enforcement.
Agencies in 619 counties in every state except Rhode Island now have drones, and many have multiple agencies with the technology. Primarily, they are being used to find people who need help in locations traditionally difficult for humans to navigate with conventional vehicles.
New aerial capabilities
Drones have largely been adopted to fill the need for some aerial capabilities for public safety officers that were previously covered in a limited fashion by manned aircraft.
The Bard study found most agencies with drones did not previously have aerial capability, and 80 percent of those that do now also fly a manned aircraft.
Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Bard Drone Center, told UPI agencies that had manned vehicles mostly serve large cities or entire states. Conversely, those in smaller or rural areas are more likely to have only drones -- making the new devices a key part of their search capability.
"We kept seeing one of the rationales for acquiring a drone that police departments would make over and over again across the country was that they don't have an aerial capability or it's too far away," he said. "So while this doesn't replace a manned helicopter, it certainly is better than nothing."
Gettinger said the accessibility, affordability and ease of use of drones are leading some departments to rethink their manned aircraft fleet.
"As far as we know, there isn't a department with a manned aircraft that is choosing to retire their manned aircraft in favor of a drone, but I think suddenly a lot of departments are facing that choice," he said. "Increasingly they're going to have to make a case for whether maintaining a manned aircraft is realistic."
Chinese technology company DJI is one of the most popular drone makers for public safety -- serving 523 agencies -- and its Phantom, Inspire, Matrice and Mavic models are the most sold.
The Phantom is by far the most popular drone, but more are ordering the Mavic because of its small, light and transportable design. The heavier Matrice carries heavier payloads.
"The data reflects the early years of public safety adoption of this technology and in terms of the types of systems, I think the data reflects the industry-wide trends, but our sense is that the types of systems in use are diversifying slightly," said Gettinger.
Drone to the (quick) rescue
Lt. Matt Snelson, administrator of the Fremont, Calif., Police Department's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Program, told UPI a drone helped find a missing deaf teenager last month.
The California Highway Patrol asked for help finding the boy after he disappeared from the California School for the Deaf. Officials said he was quickly found when a department drone detected his heat signature in some bushes.
"The young man was in a very isolated area, completely dark. It would have taken officers a long time to potentially find him, having to hand search with flashlights," Snelson said. "Yet we're able to put a UAV in the air and locate him within minutes."
The model used in the California search has both a color camera and forward-looking infrared camera, as well as a spotlight. It can also carry a loudspeaker to play prerecorded messages.
Snelson said without the drone, a sizable amount of police resources would've been needed for the search.
"We would've been talking about numerous police officers basically doing a systematic search of a very large area with heavy brush, in dark conditions, trying to locate this person to be able to bring help to them," he said.
Snelson said the department launched its UAV program a year ago in conjunction with the local fire department and it now operates a fleet of 12 drones, including four Mavic 2 Pros, and eight DJI Phantom 4s.
"It's aiding us with a different perspective," he said. "So everything from a crash where maybe somebody may have been ejected and it's in dark conditions and the use of a drones with a FLIR unit would speed our ability to locate that person, to the incident with the young man from the California School for the Deaf."
Experts say advancements will soon lead to even more efficient flying machines.
Researchers at the University of Zurich are developing a self-folding drone that can autonomously change its shape to traverse various obstacles. It can assume three different shapes on the fly, allowing it to negotiate narrow gaps other drones couldn't get into and better inspect vertical surfaces.
Davide Falanga, a researcher developing the drone, told UPI it retains the ability to accommodate useful attachments, like the spotlight in Snelson's department.
"The ability to fold does not affect much other capabilities, such as mounting onboard cameras or other sensors," he said. "The central part of the body stays in place, so any sensor connected to it will stay in the same position for the entire duration of the flight."
The self-folding drone is still in the prototype phase and Falanga said several improvements are needed before it hits mass production. He also said the machine's folding feature could impact production cost, but doesn't expect it to be too costly to commercialize. That cost, he said, has so far limited widespread use of drones designed for law enforcement because so many agencies pay for them with grants or donations.
Bard's research said of 161 agencies who use drones, 74 paid with donated money, 39 with grants, 26 with seized or forfeited funds, 17 with allocations and five by some other means. The average cost is $18,117 and the median is $10,000, the report said.
Another obstacle to widespread use is privacy. Drones have the capability to record in-flight video in residential and other private areas, and many are produced by foreign companies, raising a cyber-security issue.
Snelson said his department makes privacy policies public and prohibits indiscriminate surveillance and weaponizing its drones. He said the department hopes to acquire a digital flight plan log this year to track accountability and flight worthiness, as well as make flight data available in a digital format that can be easily shared online.
"Our intention is to start posting it all," he said. "So that the public after the fact can come and look and know each flight that we're flying again."