Security from the skies: Law enforcement implementing drone systems
By Guy Cherni
It wasn’t long ago that technologies depicted in sci-fi films and futuristic TV shows seemed farfetched and out of this world. Iconic scenes, such as the Star Trek crew using ‘personal access data devices’ (today commonly known as tablets) and USA Today’s media drone filming Griff Tannen’s arrest in Back to the Future II, seemed unbelievable at the time and stood out for their daring creativity. Today, thanks to recent technological advances, many of the fantastical technological visions of the past are becoming reality.
By Guy Cherni
According to a report compiled by the Center for the Study of the Drone, a research institute based out of Bard College, at least 347 U.S. state and local police, fire and emergency units added drones to their arsenals in 2016. Of those 347 departments, 63 per cent of the acquisitions were for law enforcement, a trend that is expected to continue to grow according to the study.
This is a trend that is growing in Canada as well. Canadian law enforcement bodies are rallying and winning permissions from federal officials to operate drones for emergency services.
However, the majority of the drones being used currently are made by popular prosumer drone companies, making very few drones capable or fit for the rigorous tasks demanded by police departments. Compounding this are the diverse and unchartered needs of law enforcement; forces do not yet know all the applications for which they will need drones. They work in uncertain situations and require a professional drone solution that can be ready for any scenario.
Pitfalls of current drone solutions
Current drone solutions often lack the necessary capabilities – particularly when it comes to usability and automation – that would make them essential for police departments. Limited capabilities combined with poor build structure and hardware have created lackluster field results. Nevertheless, these limited capability drones have shown law enforcement that adding UAVs to their repertoire does more good than harm. Police departments are now itching for drones built specifically for their field – longer flying, smarter, autonomous.
Needs of law enforcement drones
In a nutshell, law enforcement requires smarter, streamlined, more capable and fully autonomous UAVs to significantly improve their outcomes. Here are a few changes that are going to happen in the drone industry that will reflect police needs:
1. Better processers: As processing power increases, so will drone capabilities across the board. Stronger processors translate to smarter drones that can understand their surroundings, analyze what they “see” (using advanced computer vision technology) and respond accordingly. This functionality is driven by Artificial Intelligence (AI), which allows drones to track objects in real time and use object avoidance systems to adjust course automatically. These stronger processers also create greater operational efficiency, extending battery life, which extends flight times and ranges – important in search and rescue, and other long-flight time missions.
2. Greater connectivity: Advanced Wi-Fi modules and operation on LTE networks allows for greater streaming distance. This is important as real-time connectivity means information can be automatically sent as it is collected to a central station.
Further connectivity is enabled by the deployment of mesh networks, which allow drones to relay information between one another and respond to this information accordingly. This differs from current drone technologies, which operate on a node-to-node basis (one remote controller, remaining in-sight of the drone, controls a single drone). Mesh networks can also allow for multiple people to control the same drone (multi-control) from various ground stations, and multiple streams of data can be sent in real-time to several screens. In the case of law enforcement – several officers that might be in different locations can have visibility and control around the same target.
3. Fully autonomous: Improved processors and connectivity will make way for improved autonomous capabilities and swarm technology. Swarms of drones, communicating via mesh networks will be able to operate autonomously – important for surveillance purposes, which are in high demand amongst law enforcement departments. Receiving live feeds from drones that are surveying dangerous areas not only keeps police informed, but more importantly, keeps them safe. In addition, the autonomy of drones means that law enforcement teams have an extra set of hands ready to respond to the situation, rather than requiring a dedicated drone operator to be on the scene.
Drones operating autonomously in tandem with law enforcement teams will be enabled by the deployment of remote protective docking and charging stations, which house law enforcement drones at key points around cities. For example, if someone calls the police, saying there is a robbery taking place at a certain location, a drone stationed nearby can autonomously deploy and make its way to the scene to give law enforcement an advanced look at the action on the ground.
4. Better drones at a lower price: When it comes to implementing new technologies, law enforcement departments are known to be early adopters of technology that can enhance their capabilities. With lives on the line, budget is a smaller issue compared to other markets, and often, law enforcement officials are willing to take a chance on new technology. Unfortunately, most police departments using UAVs don’t have the budgets necessary to implement professional-grade drone systems. Instead, they resort to prosumer systems, which might lack the necessary versatile capabilities for the law enforcement market.
However, as professional drone capabilities improve and become ubiquitous, the price of professional drones will subsequently decrease. This change will boost the number of professional drones being utilized by law enforcement, resulting in greater police safety. And, by having advanced “eyes on the scene,” drones can increase effectiveness of law enforcement professionals once they arrive at the scene.
Law enforcement departments have made their voices heard in the UAV market, and professional drone makers are moving quickly to answer their call. By improving drone solutions, law enforcement teams will be able to utilize professional drones to their maximum potential, allowing officials to give their full focus to the task at hand and stay safe in the process.
Guy Cherni currently serves as the chief marketing officer of Atlas Dynamics, an aerospace company providing autonomous UAV solutions.