Drone Use By Public Safety Agencies Soars

June 12, 2018
drone use increasing

In its latest report, the Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone issued an updated database of public safety agencies with using drones. Among its findings, the report, issued May 28, 2018, estimated that at least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency services agencies in the United States have acquired drones. The numbers uncover more agencies that acquired drones prior to 2017 than previously reported, leading the authors to estimate that the number of public safety agencies with drones has increased 82 percent in the last year alone.

The study’s author, Dan Gettinger, the Center’s founder and co-director, offered key findings.

  • At least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and EMS, and public safety agencies have acquired drones in recent years;
  • Law enforcement agencies make up two-thirds (599) of the public safety agencies with drones;
  • The majority of drones operated by public safety agencies are consumer and prosumer models;
  • There are more than twice as many public safety agencies with drones as there are agencies with manned aircraft.

The database includes all known law enforcement and emergency response agencies that are reported to own at least one drone. The database is based on a combination of government records and local media reports. For its part, the Bard College study coordinators acknowledge that the database may not, however, reflect the total number of agencies that have used drones at some point, noting that it is not uncommon for an agency to receive drone services from nearby agencies, or contract the services of a local drone operator.

The newly-released report detailed the different ways public safety agencies acquire drones. According to the report, of 161 agencies for which there is information available, 74 used donations, 39 applied grant monies, 26 used seized or forfeited funds, 17 relied on budgeted funding, and 5 used other means. The update also reveals that additional ways that public safety departments with drones and departments with manned aircraft tend to differ:

  • Public safety departments with drones are more widely distributed across the U.S. than departments with manned aircraft. For example, while just 16 percent of all departments with manned aircraft are located in the northeast and midwest (Census Regions 1 and 2), approximately 45 percent public safety departments with drones are located in these regions.
  • The average population of all counties with manned aircraft owned by public safety departments is 94 percent greater than the average population of all counties with department-owned drones.
  • Compared to drone-operating agencies, of which two-thirds are explicitly law enforcement departments, 90 percent of public safety departments that operate manned aircraft (309 out of 338) work in law enforcement.
  • Fewer than five municipal or county emergency management agencies fly manned aircraft, whereas 107 municipal or county emergency management agencies own drones. Similarly, while just 18 fire departments own manned aircraft, there are at least 186 fire departments with drones.

Coverage of the Bard College study identifies a growing interest in the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) in the smart city space.

Interesting trends by states and municipalities employing drone technology were cited in news summaries of the Study. A Smart Cities Dive article featured key findings, and a StateScoop report stated that increased drone adoption can be attributed to both the declining cost of the technology, and a regulatory landscape that grows more permissive each year.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Transportation Department and FAA issued an update naming cities that will lead research on new uses of drones, particularly to allow the aircraft to be operated beyond the operator's visual line-of-sight. Winning applicants of FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program are:

  • Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma in Durant, Oklahoma
  • City of San Diego, California
  • Virginia Tech's Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, Virginia
  • Kansas Department of Transportation in Topeka, Kansas
  • Lee County Mosquito Control District in Ft. Myers, Florida
  • Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority in Memphis, Tennessee
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation in Raleigh, North Carolina
  • North Dakota Department of Transportation in Bismarck, North Dakota
  • City of Reno, Nevada
  • University of Alaska-Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska

As reported by statescoop.com in early May, 2018, a list of these ten state, local and tribal government entities selected will next refine their original concepts and begin testing new drone applications — from finding missing people during blizzards (North Dakota) to precision agriculture (Kansas). Across a wide range of new use-cases, pilot participants will address the biggest challenges preventing drones from entering the national airspace on a wide scale today. "Night operations, flights over people and beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft" are all key focus areas for the pilot, according to DoT. Next, participants will refine their concepts through "memorandums of agreement" that "establish parties’ responsibilities, describe specific concepts of operations they will undertake, establish any data-sharing requirements, and specify that no federal funds will be spent on the program," according to DoT.

“Drones are the future,” according to Mary Scott Nabers, President & CEO of Austin, Texas-based Strategic Partnerships, Inc. In a Smart & Resilient Cities news feature in May, 2017, Nabers weighed in on the 2016 Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone 2016 Report. Her article echoes the sentiments of smart city leaders, public safety agency directors, UAV manufacturers and the citizenry at large as the number of drones in use continue to rise.

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