Drones for Public Safety, and the DronePilot Program


Roger Sollenberger

John Buell has been an officer with the Austin Police Department for seventeen years. He speaks at a lawman’s clip and has an impassive build, which makes it seem like he’s been set in stone, but John is actively propelling one of the most forward-thinking initiatives in public safety, the central Texas DronePilot program.

John’s been flying drones for a decade. He started in a military-affiliated WMD response team, where he saw that instead of suiting someone up to carry atmospheric sensors into a hot zone, you could send a drone and get the same information, and more of it. John immediately recognized the potential this technology held for public servants—police officers; firefighters; EMTs; search and rescue teams—but when the Austin Police Department began looking into incorporating drone technology, the public bridled at the idea and the APD put the program on hold. In response John founded DronePilot, a public program to promote the understanding and safe and legal use of drone systems, and today, thanks in part to John’s efforts, the Austin Fire Department is in the process of obtaining one of the FAA’s elusive Certificates of Authorization.

Through DronePilot, John now trains off-duty public servants in and around Austin as hobbyists, promoting the safe, effective and legal use of UAV technology. In addition, the DronePilot program educates the public about relevant legal and privacy issues, as well as holds live demonstrations and advocates for the use of drone technology in public safety.

“Drones are invaluable for law enforcement in that they provide you with real-time situational awareness,” John explains. “They can see around corners and over hills, they can watch your back, they can gather data and give you real-time aerial video. It’s like each individual has their own manned helicopter. That’s huge. That saves lives.”

Real-life scenarios abound: Drones can help stop police ambushes, scout fires and other dangerous scenarios, quickly and comprehensively search accident and crime scenes, even pick up heat signatures. It’s a hallmark of our data-driven era: Get the right information, and you’ll make the right decisions.

But it’s another hallmark of our era that John says his biggest obstacle in running the DronePilot program isn’t mastering this new and complex technology, or even training new pilots in it, but in overcoming public mistrust, especially when such a technology is in the hands of a government entity like law enforcement. He says that educating and reassuring a fearful public actually takes up most of his time.

“If I could have one thing in the world,” he says, “I’d ask for the trust of the public.”

John points out what many others have: this is a controversial technology that we’re just now beginning to demilitarize; any technology can be used for good or ill (“You can hit someone with a hammer, or you can build something with it”); the benefits that drones could provide for this very same public are numerous and potentially lifesaving. But he also points out that we trust police officers to carry guns on their hips. “You trust us to wear a badge and a gun, so trust us that we’re going to use a piece of technology to help us do our job, and ultimately to help our colleagues and the people we serve.”

John believes that once the proper regulations are in place the public will come around to seeing drones as a viable technology that they can trust. But he also believes drone manufacturers have a role to play here, too; to promote safe operations and produce safe systems, but also to show data. “A really great thing about 3DR that no one else has is DroneShare,” he says. “You can research all my flights, pull up all my flight data. If something goes wrong we can immediately see what it was, and where it happened and why. That’s great for advancing the technology, and it’s great for the people who benefit in the end, too.”

John gets patently animated when he talks about the people he serves and the colleagues in arms he’s bound to protect. These days he wakes up thinking about DronePilot, and is certain that UAV technology will forever change his profession. “This is our Velcro,” he says, referring to the advent of Velcro straps that are now indispensable to firefighters. “This is big. It’s the lives of the folks I work with, the lives of the people who protect us, and ultimately it’s the lives of the people we protect.”

It’s clear that although the public may not trust John just yet, he certainly trusts them. Everything in his world, it seems, comes back to information: “If people get the right information, they’ll make the right decisions.”