Police Drones are Starting to Have a Mind of Their Own

In a city in Southern California, drones using artificial intelligence are assisting investigations, while presenting a somewhat controversial question on civil rights.

In Chula Vista, California, when the police receive a 911 distress call, with just the press of a button, they can dispatch a flying drone.

Recently, from the Chula Vista Police Department roof launchpad, they dispatched a drone to a parking lot across the city, where a man was sleeping in the front seat of a stolen car with illegal drugs in his possession.

When the man left the car with a gun and a bag of heroin, a police car nearby couldn’t follow him as he ran across the street and went behind a wall. But a drone above him caught on camera as he tossed the gun into a dumpster and hid the heroin. It also caught as he ran through the backdoor of a mall, left through the front door and sprinted down the sidewalk.

With an officer watching the live video feed back at headquarters, he relayed the information to the officers on scene who soon caught him and brought him into custody. They also retrieved the gun and bag of heroin. With another simple press of a button, the drone returned to the launchpad on the roof.

Every day, the Chula Vista Police Department respond to over 15 emergency calls with a drone. Since the program started two years ago, more than 4,100 flights have been launched. With just a population of 270,000, Chula Vista is the first city in the United States to adopt this program, called Drone as First Responder.

In the last several months, two other cities in California and one in Georgia have also adopted this program. Although Police agencies in Hawaii and New York have used drones for years, it has been mostly used in simple manual ways, with an officer carrying it in the trunk of a patrol car and driving it to the crime scene before launching or flying it.

The latest drone technology—similar to the one in self-driving cars— can transform policing, as well as delivery of packages, inspections of buildings and military reconnaissance. This would do a great deal in cutting costs of millions spent on helicopters and pilots.

However, this innovation raises questions concerning civil liberties as drones can track people and vehicles automatically. As more drones are used, more videos of life in the city are collected, thereby removing any privacy outside the home.

‘Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection. Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses’, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (A.C.L.U.) Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology.

Rahul Sidhu, an officer in Redondo Beach, near Los Angeles, said drones are a method of policing at a safe distance with the global pandemic getting worse. They began a similar program to the one in Chula Vista after the coronavirus got to the United States.

‘We’re just trying to limit our exposure to other people,’ he said. ‘Sometimes, you can send a drone without sending an officer.’

He said that as these drones get cheaper and more powerful, it could be more efficient in policing urban areas. This would assist police departments at a time where there are less and less recruits across the country, and people are calling for the defunding of the police after protests against police brutality.

Drones are already an integral part of emergency responses in Chula Vista. After an emergency call, the drone is given a location where it flies to on its own and returns on its own too.

The drones in the department can cover about one-third of the city from launch sites, and can respond to about 70% of emergency calls. After requesting the Federal Aviation Administration for an approval of a third site, they hope to cover the whole city, which is about 52 square miles between San Diego and the Mexican border.

Government protocol state that a certified pilot must be on the roof of the Police Department supervising the launch, along with a police officer in the command station in the building overseeing the flying of the drones until it gets to its destination.

F.A.A protocol bars drones from flying beyond the line of sight of their operators in order to protect the flights of commercial planes and other aircraft. However, Chula Vista acquired a waiver from the F.A.A which allows the pilot and officer to fly the drone as far as three miles from the launch site.

Each drone, including cameras, sensors and other software costs the department around $35,000. But the overall cost is the amount of officers needed for the operation of the drones.

On a recent afternoon, the Chula Vista police were informed of an upside down car in an empty riverbed so they sent a new kind of drone there. It was built by Skydio, a Silicon Valley company and can avoid obstacles on its own, using a similar technology to those used in self-driving cars.

‘An ordinary drone would have crashed by now, guaranteed’, said Sergeant James Horst as he watched the video of the drone flying down into the riverbed and inspecting the interior of the car.

Later in the courtyard of the Police Department, he demonstrated how he could instruct a drone to track a specific person or vehicle on its own, with just the press of a button. Skydio has since offered a consumer drone capable of following you anywhere even while navigating through obstacles. Now, the company which recently hired the former head of the Chula Vista police drone program, Fritz Reber is selling to the police and other establishments.

Shield AI, a start-up in San Diego which previously worked with police departments developed a drone that could fly unsupervised into a building to inspect its premises, in the dark as well as daylight. Skydio and DJI, a Chinese company that makes the Chula Vista police drones are building a similar technology.

Captain Don Redmond said that the drone videos from the Chula Vista police department are treated as police body cams, which is only released publicly with approval. The drones are not used for routine patrols.

For Mr. Stanley of the A.C.L.U., a privacy advocate, his concern is that this new technology could be used in targeting some communities or enforcing laws against some social norms.

‘It could allow law enforcement to enforce any area of the law against anyone they want’, he said.

For instance, drones can easily be used to detect people and restrict protests which have been rampant across the country recently. Captain Redmond said that drones were not deployed by the Chula Vista department for the Black Lives Matter protests because it was forbade by policies.

According to Captain Redmond, the Chula Vista police do not the need the approval of city officials to expand use of the drones, but the community has been publicly notified of the program’s continued progress.

In places like Redondo Beach and Clovis, California, Drone as First Responder programs are requesting waivers to enable the drones fly beyond the line of sight of the operators.

In Clovis, the Police Department found that the drones overheat at the peak of summer. ‘We were flying them four days a week until it got too hot’, Lieutenant James Munro said. ‘Then we had to ground them’.

However, he said, ‘Drones are like iPhones. As soon as you get a new one, a new one arrives with new technology’.

By Marvellous Iwendi.

Source: The New York Times.