DRONERESPONDERS, a non-profit group that supports UAS in public safety missions, estimates that there are more than 5,000 public safety organizations with drone programs, and more are adopting the technology every day.

It’s easy to see why police departments, firefighters, first responders, and emergency services professionals have embraced uncrewed systems. In many cases, the capabilities of the technology allow organizations to conduction missions in ways that are safer, faster, more accurate, and less expensive than traditional methods. 

While the number of public safety and emergency services groups incorporating drones continues to grow, there are a few barriers that a holding back greater integration. Experts say that costs, training, government regulations, and public perceptions of the technology are some of the factors that can stand in the way of adoption.

Recently, Commercial UAV News discussed uncrewed systems in public safety and emergency services with Chief Charles L. Werner (Emeritus-RET), Director, DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance, Christopher Todd, Executive Director of the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), and David Young of Public Safety UAS, a company that trains sUAS pilots, including those working in public safety.

Here are their views on the 6 barriers to drone adoption in the sector:

1. CostDo public services organizations have the funds needed to create effective drone-based operations? What can be done to reduce costs or convince funding sources that the initial investment is worthwhile?

Todd: The ability to secure funding for public safety and emergency services drone operations depends largely on the type of agency or organization that is looking to adopt the technology. For larger departments who have operated manned aviation assets, the ability to lean on sUAS represents a substantial cost savings over the cost-per-hour of operating and maintaining a traditional aviation program. However, these types of agencies are few and far between. The vast majority of public safety organizations are small departments where the creation of a sUAS program represents an additional cost burden rather than a cost savings. These smaller agencies must define a plan and create a roadmap that will project a return-on-investment (ROI) for their program.

Werner: Funding from a public safety perspective is challenging as there are basically no grant funding available for drones. To initially keep costs down, start a small program with a less expensive that can be used to show the value. In addition, conduct public demonstrations to show the value of drones. It’s also helpful to reference how other nearby UAS programs are helping their communities. 

Young: Like any investment, it’s important to do your research before making decisions. An oversight we commonly encounter is agencies purchasing larger, expensive drones without considering additional costs and planning needed to secure necessary add-ons for extended operations. Lights, cameras, controllers, and batteries are often overlooked costs. Bigger is not always better. Sometimes it’s more prudent to purchase smaller drones specifically designed for the applications the agencies are using them for. Using the wrong drone can be a costly mistake. An example would be purchasing a Matrice 30 as an indoor drone option. With a little education and research, costly mistakes can be avoided.

2. RegulationsDoes the current regulatory environment discourage public service and emergency organizations from implementing uncrewed systems?

Werner: First, there are general rules from the FAA regarding flight operations of drones across the US. There are different rules, ordinances, and laws from state to state. This can place more restrictions for public safety as to the type of aircraft that is allowed to fly and the specific use cases. These local, state rules can also be problematic during out of state drones flying during disasters.

Young: Some of these (regulations) may vary by state. For example in North Carolina, the Department of Transportation Aviation Division describes “plain view” as what a person can see if they were on the ground while having a legal right to be there. In other states like West Virginia, there is little guidance on the plain view doctrine as it applies to done use. When utilizing a drone for any public safety scenario, the pilot must be comfortable with their mission and be able to articulate their actions if needed in court. While cases like United States V Causby (1946) may seem outdated or unrelated to drone use, they can still be used to articulate public safety operations.

Todd: The regulatory environment is continually evolving as one might expect with new technology that impacts the public domain. Public safety organizations need to realize this and keep an open mind as they build out their sUAS program. Many agencies are going “all-in” to create a program around a specific manufacturer or technology solution. As we have seen happen in Florida, lawmakers are continuing to define and redefine the legal and regulatory framework surrounding uncrewed aviation technology—especially by government entities. Until these frameworks stabilize and start to mature, sUAS program managers should be prepared to face continuing changes within the entire ecosystem.

Young: Organizations are always weary of ending up in precarious legal predicaments and rightfully so. Education and good practices are key. While it’s true there is little in case law for public safety and drone use, this will inevitably change in the future. If case law is going to be created by public safety organizations, let’s ensure it is good by pilots being familiar with federal law, state laws, and local restrictions and regulations.

3. Counter UAS Despite some recent progress, many organizations and leaders feel that they do not yet have the authority to perform effective counter UAS operations. What needs to be done to enable public safety and emergency services entities to tackle the growing problem of rogue drones?

Todd: The C-UAS sector continues to be one of the more hotly debated areas of drone operations impacting the public safety sector. The bottom line is the regulatory environment has not been defined yet. As it stands today, only a few federal agencies have the capability, as well as the authority, to both detect and then mitigate potentially nefarious drones within the US National Airspace System (NAS). The detection aspect can be performed by almost anyone with the right equipment. It is really the mitigation authority—meaning the legal justification and power to divert or destroy a perceived UAS threat—that is the sticking point, and rightly so. We really need to be judicious as to who and how we grant the authority to intercept and overtake uncrewed aircraft operating in the NAS.

Werner: While CUAS efforts have been launched by the White House and legislation drafted, neither have moved forward to date. The authority to mitigate or take down a drone rests with a number of federal agencies only. These authorities for federal agencies have been extended for one year under the recent Omnibus bill. The most important need is to allow a clear path to detection. This will provide awareness of flight activity over people, over critical infrastructure, etc. Presently it is a very gray area as to what is and is not allowed. There is a great need to be able to quickly identify the location of the aircraft and controller. Federal authorities are not able to provide coverage for the entire country. There have been efforts by the CUAS Coalition to send a strong message to Congress. CUAS authorities need to be extended to state, local, territorial, and tribal agencies, as well as the private sector. 

Young: Organizations have to be cognizant of legal ramifications, violating federal law, and infringing on others’ rights. Public Safety organizations are hesitant to get involved with counter-UAS technologies for fear of ending up on the wrong side of legal action. However, until laws clearly define their authority on the matter and procedures they may take, many will continue to shy away from using them or rely heavily on industry experts to consult them on best practices and equipment. 

Todd: The key here to moving the ball forward is acquiring additional data surrounding all types of sUAS operations. As more information becomes available, we will be able to better decipher the behavioral patterns and other data surrounding flight operations which will help to make the path forward much clearer.

4. Coordination Does the introduction of uncrewed systems complicate coordination of services between police, fire, public health, and other entities in ways that discourage implementation?

Todd: Coordination between police and fire has been a challenge for over a hundred years. Technology, such as radio communications, has helped to bridge that gap and will continue to do so. The camaraderie between public safety remote pilots is thick. We see law enforcement and fire service remote pilots training together and supporting each other on many types of missions. Drones represent a unique technology that is bringing most public safety remote pilots together under a single tent.

Young: Training and teamwork are vital for success. At the end of the day, we are public safety and all working toward the same goal. Drones can be used in team-focused environments, and leaders should encourage public safety agencies to work together, attend open training and courses to practice working together, and familiarize themselves with each other’s capabilities and area expertise. We recommend contacting local emergency management organizations and becoming involved in their training, networking with them, and learning about the different technologies and methods. If there isn’t a drone program in your area, this could be your opportunity to become the go-to person for your agency and region. If you can’t find one in your area, we will do our best to help out. Ultimately, it’s about working together for the common goal of public safety.

Werner: Presently there has been a great deal of success in safe implementation of drone operations. During emergency response, most public safety operations fall under the Incident Command System (ICS) which helps to coordinate response and flight operations. During major disasters, states usually coordinate UAS flight operations for crewed and uncrewed aircraft. The best way to minimize disruption is to have SOPs for operational rules and to train accordingly. 

Todd: The big gap we need to work on right now is the coordination and trust between manned and unmanned aviators. The reality is that during an active incident, a law enforcement helicopter pilot is probably much more likely to trust a fire service helicopter pilot over a law enforcement sUAS remote pilot. Sure, there are some exceptions to that comment—especially in units where the drone teams actively train with manned aviation teams in tactical operations. But generally speaking, manned aviators still remain skeptical as to the professionalism and proficiency of remote pilots.  That is a challenge facing the entire industry and one that will take time to overcome.

5. Public PerceptionMany in the general public are concerned about the ways drones may be used by public service and emergency organizations. What can be done to change public perception around security, safety, and privacy?

Young: Public education is crucial and requires organizations to be transparent about their operations. Perhaps, instead of being secretive about the drone program, a public event or information release would be better, explaining how they are being used and sharing operational success stories. It’s tough to argue that finding missing children, a violent escapee, and conducting large fire-fighting operations that save lives are bad investments. 

Todd: Public safety agencies, especially law enforcement agencies, need to be more forthcoming and transparent surrounding when and how they are using drone technology. This can be difficult for police departments who are accustomed to operating with a certain veil of security over their tactical operations. At DRONERESPONDERS, we advise public safety organizations to use sUAS technology for public outreach and events much like they have used their K-9 teams.  Send the drone unit out to visit local schools and demonstrate the equipment in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) environment to the students. Teach the kids about all the cool things that drones can do to help keep the community safe. We need to start with America’s youth and make them feel comfortable with the use of drone technology by public safety organizations.  

Werner: DRONERESPONDERS recommends that before implementation of a drone program to engage the community, elected officials and the local ACLU to share how the drones will be used, how they will NOT be used and show the types of drones that will be flown. It is critically important to be transparent from before, during and after implementation. Departments who have started without engaging the community have been forced to stop and conduct community engagement. DRONERESPONDERS provides an Outreach Guide that can be customized for each locality. It also includes town hall meetings and hands on drone demos for the community. This helps to understand, demystify and show the value that drones provide for their respective communities and the responders that serve them. There is a plethora of documents and resources free in the DRONERESPONDERS online Resource Center. Most communities are very supportive of public safety drone programs. 

Young: Weeks ago, our unit assisted a neighboring agency by locating a missing, nonverbal autistic 13-year-old child in the freezing weather. After hours of unsuccessful on-the-ground searches, a request was made to use a drone, and within three minutes, the child was located and returned home unharmed and safe. There are countless stories of these nationwide successes every day. Undoubtedly, accountability, transparency, education, and sharing successes will impact how the public views drones and their use during public safety operations. 

Todd: Change won’t happen overnight, but as the technology improves, the legal and regulatory framework will stabilize, and public perceptions will also evolve. When these three boxes get checked, then funding opportunities will increase, and we’ll see the true maturation of sUAS program for public safety and emergency services organizations across the US. 

6. Training and PersonnelAre public safety and emergency services agencies in a position to bring on new employees or train existing staff on drone-related systems?

Young: Since public organizations don’t have infinite resources, and with recruiting becoming a growing issue for public safety organizations, it’s imperative agencies use safe practices and technology to help fill gaps using systems like Drone First Responder (DFR,) which allows some calls for service to be addressed without employees having to respond.

Werner: Training is absolutely necessary for safe and effective operations in the NAS. Most departments have engaged in training programs for their drone ops. DRONERESPONDERS recommends the use of the NIST Standard Test Methods for sUAS Test Lanes as a tool to help train on and evaluate proficiency of fundamental maneuvering skills. DRONERESPONDERS is also working with MITRE to develop a basic remote pilot training curriculum and will hopefully be released early in 2023. Most public safety remote pilots are doing this as a collateral duty. For people seeking public safety employment, a remote pilot certification will be beneficial, especially for departments with drone programs.

Young: At Public Safety UAS, we believe training obstacles can be easily overcome. We also envision drones being used in everyday emergency response situations and inevitably becoming standardized equipment. We’ve recently been asked to incorporate drone training and education on an academy level, which provides new hires immediate proper education and training on the fundamentals of drone operations and recognizes the benefits of using them. We saw a gap between the need and available resources for public safety. There are tons of courses and schools available teaching the basics of drone operations, but few are operated by and geared toward public safety employees. One operating a drone as a hobby, photographer, or engineer can be vastly different from flying during high-risk operations. Because equipment and environment can differ, quality training becomes crucial.