Obstacles and Solutions to Implementation Drones in Your Public Safety Agency’s Tool Kit

Gene Robinson, VP Flight Operations, Drone Pilot, Inc.

So it now seems that unmanned aircraft, or drones, are starting to gain acceptance from both public safety agencies and the constituents they serve.  Are you ready?  However, the more important question may be, “are you capable?”  This paper will explore the requirements, obstacles and misconceptions of introducing drones into the lineup of an agency’s tools to better serve their public.

Obstacles

A primary concern for any agency is the amount of resistance received from the people living in their jurisdiction.  This statement of fact is made based on the experience and resistance encountered in introducing drone programs in those municipalities that have had the vision and persistence to pursue it.   

You WILL meet some resistance, no matter what.  

So, are you prepared to counter this resistance with a thoughtful plan of positives that can far outweigh any risk or detriment resulting from the naysayers?  

Can you ground your plan in past positive experiences and a staunch commitment by the chain of command and elected officials to provide the best service and safety possible?  

There are many agencies starting their programs, having very little experience behind them to do so.  Why is that?  The very simple answer is there are very few people experienced and knowledgeable in both drone operations in the field and public service.

There are agencies that can be found that are using drones, but upon closer research, it is discovered their effort is built on one mistake after the other. Or in other words, their experience is lacking in experience, seriously.  Those mistakes can take years to shake off.

Agencies can be left with many taxpayer dollars spent and a poor program.  Be prepared to counter resistance based on failed programs or drone accidents.  Counter it by doing it “differently.”  Do it right, safe, and smart.  But how to do it different is a big question, and there is a right way and a wrong way.

The “Toy” Mentality

Because these aircraft have sprung from the hobby industry, many in the public and management of public safety see them as “toys” and not really a serious “tool” that can save lives.  Regardless of all the life-saving information available that proves otherwise, this notion still exists among the rank and file.  This unfortunate view can easily be refuted by looking at the types of aircraft now available that are well beyond the reach of a hobbyist in both sophistication and expense.  

Another indicator of the serious nature of these flying “trucks” is the amount of time and effort being expended on the development of sensors to expand the human senses of sight, sound, smell, and taste.  

For example, almost everyone knows of the camera/sensor known as FLIR or Forward Looking InfraRed for use in the pitch dark of night.  This sensor sprang from the military use of the technology into the forefront of public safety manned aviation.  Through miniaturization and reduction in costs, this technology can be flown on “toy” drones.  The ability to detect differences in heat has many, many saves to its credit on both manned and unmanned aircraft in search and rescue (SAR).  Even though this camera will fit easily in the palm of your hand, it is far from being a toy.  It is when these sorts of instruments are brought to bear does one finally see the “toy” moniker start to dim in public perception.

This is just one way one can use this knowledge and technology to promote their program. Don’t forget, the price tag on a FLIR can run $15,000 plus the price of an aircraft, which can result in a huge budgetary hurdle.   If you take this approach, can your agency afford to break this “toy”?

Another detrimental offshoot of the “toy” factor is the belief that since it can be bought at a big box store, anyone can do it.  This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions held by the chain of command of numerous law enforcement, fire departments, and other municipal agencies considering the technology.  This is simply not the case.  Here are the reasons why this “toy” should be given very careful and professional consideration:

  1.  These aircraft now have Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) that control their use in the National Airspace (NAS)
  2.  The Federal Aviation Administration has defined a drone as an “aircraft” and as such is treated in much the same way as full size manned aircraft.  
  3.  Training is required since it is an aircraft.  While there is a written test to become legal, there is in reality, a minimum number of hours before anyone can be considered proficient.
  4.  These aircraft can be a considerable investment to a small agency.  It is not prudent to put an operator at the controls that has only a few days instruction under their belt.
  5.   There is every potential that a life could be on the line with the launch of this aircraft.  Wouldn’t that be serious enough to consider a more professional application of the technology?

With those few bullet points lets delve a little deeper into each one to see where these simple statements come from.

  1. There are Federal regulations that control these aircraft.

Contrary to popular belief, these drones have been around and flying for many, many years.  Depending on your perspective, you can go all the way back to the Civil War and most certainly from World War I.  History tells us that the V1 “buzz bombs” used in World War II were unmanned aircraft, in more modern times we have seen all manner of war machines such as the Predator B and others.  The first recognition of the term “drones” in the public sense was in 2005 as the technology became cheaper and available on a consumer level.  Indeed, this author was first noted to use a drone in 2005 in search and rescue of missing individuals.  In 2007 because of the rapid growth, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a “clarification” of the regulations that essentially grounded all unmanned aircraft from the national airspace.  Right, wrong, or indifferent this “clarification” stunted the growth of an industry that is just now starting to play catch up, but is still very far behind in many aspects.  It took almost a decade of committees, reviews, and wrangling before the Federal Aviation Regulation, Part 107 was passed into law.  It provided for a modicum of knowledge skills to be learned and a written test to be passed before one became a Remotely Piloted Aircraft operator.  This written test only allowed you to fly legally. It did not magically teach to you fly proficiently.  Can you imagine getting on your favorite airliner to learn the captain had only just passed a written test?   Autopilots fail in drones just like they do in a Boeing 747.  Hence, the need for a trained pilot in the cockpit to take over when something fails or doesn’t awry.  

In real life, if your drone team is trained to be professional unmanned aircraft pilots, they will build a much more trusting relationship with your local airport tower.   Contacting the tower should be anticipated when flying in certain airspace.  The tower personnel are professionals.  They expect you to “walk the walk and talk the talk” just like a full-scale aircraft pilot.

  1. The Federal Aviation Administration defined drones as “aircraft”

For many years, there was actually an aircraft advisory circular (or sometimes just called an “AC”) that described the use of “model aircraft” The best known circular is AC 91-57.  It was not a law, only a guideline for the hobbyist to fly their model airplanes under.  As the FAA struggled to define what a drone was, they removed the descriptor of “model” from their dealings with these small airplanes.  This move placed them squarely under the FAR’s in the same category as Cessna, Boeing 747, or a Bell helicopter.  So referring to the question posed in the above paragraph, it begs one to ask, “If it is an aircraft, why shouldn’t you train like it is an aircraft?  The obvious answer is “Of course you should.”

  1. As an “aircraft”, training is required

We are now continuing down a simple trail of logic that arrives as each question is answered.  Since the answer is “Of course you should train as a pilot for an aircraft” we need to take it a step further.  As a public safety agency we are held to a higher standard.  We strive to be trained on the latest techniques by the most knowledgeable instructors in how to protect and to serve our citizens.  On-going training or continuing education is mandatory in just about every field of law enforcement, fire, or search and rescue and that is after a very firm foundation of knowledge and practical skills are demonstrated.  Drone aircraft training is no different.  Consider that Taser ™ training is at minimum 4 hours and costs on average $550 dollars, conducted by trainers who are intimately familiar with all the consequences of its use, and who have hundreds of hours of training themselves.  I do not mean to minimize this as it is a life saving tool, but in reality not much more than a “point and shoot” apparatus.  Safety matters using the Taser ™.  Does it make sense to receive Taser ™ training from someone who has little field knowledge and experience?  What would your legal department think about that?  Would it engender confidence to receive the same training from someone who has very little public safety experience?  The answer to these questions is an obvious “no!”

  1.  Unmanned aircraft can be a considerable investment for an agency

Even the smallest flying platform can cost over a thousand dollars and this can be an impossible hurdle for a small agency that struggles to keep up with basic equipment and keep it current.  After they do manage to get the asset in their toolkit it is incumbent upon the chain of command to keep that asset available and in flying condition.  Again this points back to training.  Certainly there are a number of risk/benefit decisions that have to be made in any incident, especially where lives hang in the balance.  I am preaching to the choir, but knowledge is power when it comes to making good sound decisions to commit personnel or assets in any given incident.  If you approach your unmanned aircraft program in a professional manner, commit to it, fund it, train on it, and keep it ready and operational, the return on investment will be many times over.  Remember, the latest batch of modern drones are considered a force multiplier.  For any agency, these are two key points necessary to satisfy: 1) the need for the asset, and, 2) the justification for its purchase and continued use.    This goes for the smallest to the largest agency.  

We hear many times how there is no budget available for a drone program.  Then the October “use-it-or-lose-it” funds in budgets appear that must be spent.  Every arm in the agency wants to use those funds.  What about seizure funds?  These are ways agencies are funding their own drone programs.  Does your agency have someone who appreciates a force multiplier and will champion the cause, and properly accumulate the data to justify the program to the powers that be?  You need to find that champion and arm them well to begin the budget fight.

  1.  A life could be on the line with every single flight

With almost a decade and half experience using drones for public safety, I know, “a life could be on the line with every single flight” is a profoundly truthful statement.  A three- year-old wanders off into the plains of West Texas on a 30 degree night, or an adult intends to do themselves harm off in the woods.  These situations occur time after time, sometimes every night for three or four nights in a row.  That is the reality that always guides our operations.  Be ready, batteries charged, aircraft checked and rechecked, and have trained staff on hand.  

This technology will be THE most disruptive technology to the “way things are done” than almost any other item you can name.  It is the new bulletproof vest, portable AED, or breaching axe of our times.  Drones can be lifesaving for either the victim, or those that are there to protect and serve.  We all know a trained policeman or firefighter, or Emergency Medical Tech is an asset, a very expensive asset to train and retain.  Protecting not only the human asset in that role, but financial investment made by the agency is a priority.  Do you train with a “toy” mentality when it comes to drones or as professional asset?

Drone aircraft, used properly, can aid in innumerable scenarios.  The victim of a violent crime or, a person lost in the wilderness, and their families would fervently hope that the latest technology would be deployed as quickly as possible.   Again, one would have to ask “what is that worth?”  Is the cost of $1,500 or even $20,000 too much to pay for a life?  These are examples of the most dramatic uses of drone.  However, there are also safety and resource management scenarios that come into play on a day-to- day basis that have not even been discussed.  In cold hard numbers, this is the return on investment, ROI, that most administrators call for when a department requests new technology to help them do their jobs.  This return goes well beyond the bottom line!

Liability Exposure

We, unfortunately, live in a very litigious world.  It seems that municipalities and public safety agencies are seen by the public as “soft targets” for all manner of lawsuits.  From the frivolous to the serious they occur and quite rightly make agency heads wary of introducing anything new.   Further, even if the agency head does promote and advocate the use of drones they could be tangled up in the legal department or city attorney who are very risk averse.  This wariness could be derived from privacy issues, physical personal injury issues, or even elected officials with voting issues.  If the number one obstacle to initiating a drone program is money, then this would have to be the number two.  It is often the most difficult hurdle to overcome.  One single person on a City Council or County Commissioner court can dig their heels in and prevent any forward movement of your program.

This individual would be the one that requires the most education to overcome their objections.  Having all the correct answers for this one is the key and will require the most rock solid set of justifications in both life saving and cost saving benefits.  In the process, you can also educate their peers in the chain of command.  As the “group think” finally arrives to the point that this technology is indispensable then the pressure shifts to the obstinate one to justify their position in keeping it away.

Reducing liability exposure

So now that you have gotten everyone on board with your plan you can now focus on how to reduce your liability.  You will likely be sued by one of your constituents no matter what, so how do you defend your operations?  You need to put yourself in a lawyer’s shoes to answer the inevitable questions that a court bound lawyer would ask.  Anyone who has ever been on the witness stand will attest that preparedness is the best way to answer all the questions with confidence and ease.  If you have a professional “drone” program that requires proficiency training, regulatory compliance, regular scenario training, formal recurring recertification, and finally certification from a third party professional training company, then you just been prepared for the scrutiny of the court system.  If you look at the Taser example, that program is continually upgraded and rigorously adhered to and they still find themselves in the witness stand.  But armed with the aforementioned knowledge and training you can answer all those questions with ease and sway the result to your liking.  If there is any question as to your ability, training, keeping flight logs, checklists, and passing proficiency tests tells the court that you have taken “all reasonable precautions for safety and risk assessment”.  With a good training program, you will be the subject matter expert (SME), known as the “go to” for drone questions.

Comparison to Manned Aircraft Operations

OK, let’s get this out of the way right from the start.  Drones WILL NOT take jobs away from manned aircraft assets. Both fixed wing and rotor wing.  A drone is a long way away from extricating that lost hiker from a mountain top!  There will always be a need for full scale manned aviation pilots for the real work of that type, but it is drones that LEAD them to where that job is!  Why risk your multi-million dollar Turbo Astria helicopter to fly into canyons or bad weather when a drone can be used at one tenth of 1% of the hardware cost to do the same job in locating that victim?  The waiting Turbo Astria pilot can then be dispatched DIRECTLY to the victim’s location for extrication and flight to the hospital if necessary.

The Government Account Office (GAO) issued a report of the cost of using an unmanned aircraft vs. manned aircraft and made a rather broad statement.  That statement indicated cost savings of 10 to 1 of using drones over manned aviation for the more mundane jobs.  While this is great for generalizations we can say confidently that running a drone is in the range of $15-$30 per hour.  A Bell Jet Ranger manned helicopter can be anywhere from $800 to $1200 per hour depending on how equipped! A pretty substantial savings when an over watch is needed or aerial imagery is required for planning purposes.

Conclusions

As with anything new that is introduced, education and training are the keys to rapid integration.  And with new technology finding quality education and training can be difficult.  There will be many that will claim years of experience in flying drones or model aircraft and this is all well and good.  However, that sort of flying is done at the nicely manicured flying field on sunny days with gentle breezes.  As public safety we don’t get to pick the environment or weather we fly in so how does one think that sort of experience will work for Public Safety?  Conversely, there are lifetime public safety professionals that do believe in the technology and have embraced it completely.  So much so, they want to introduce it their brethren by setting up training programs that are light on flight experience in varied environments.  Finally there are the manufacturers that have a vested interested in an agency’s continued interest and offer almost anything to ensure a speedy sale.  The most unscrupulous drone salesman will tell you that their aircraft will do ANYTHING you might ask of it no matter how outlandish it may be – until it’s time to used it under those conditions.  When it doesn’t meet your mission these “snake oil” salesmen no longer answer your calls or emails!

The most important decision you can make is to select your instructor wisely.  Not just for the immediate task of getting you in the air, but supporting your operation with experience so that it can be set up for success.  Look deeply into the real world civilian (not military) experience your trainers have of utilizing drones in our domestic airspace.  

About the author.

Gene Robinson has been in the drone industry for nearly a decade and a half advocating for positive drone use for Public Safety.  Gene has been to 30 states and 6 countries flying drones for all manner of law enforcement, fire, and Federal agencies, and search and rescue (SAR) operations.