Author: Jeremiah Karpowicz
October 18, 2016
The potential uses of drones by law enforcement and emergency response professionals are numerous and powerful. As a quick sample, drones could help firefighters assess the situation in a burning building before they ever step foot in it, help reconstruct crime scenes from an incredibly authoritative perspective and increase the power of a search for a missing person by orders of magnitude. With Part 107 removing the legal barrier that many officials had cited as their reason to not fully explore these possibilities, there’s never been a better time to learn how the technology can make a difference.
However, legal authority to fly a drone and actually knowing how to effectively operate one are very different things. Additionally, law enforcement and emergency response professionals are looking to utilize drones in very specific ways, which means they want insight around how drones can be operated in specific contexts and situations. Drone Pilot was formed to explore those exact details with law enforcement and emergency response professionals and it’s able to do so from a position of strength. The organization is one of the few that has public safety professionals providing the actual public safety drone training.
Industry veteran Gene Robinson along with his Drone Pilot partners and Austin, Texas law enforcement officers John Buell and Michale Josephs designed and put on the recent two-day course for various state agency administrators. The program is named “Eyes Overhead”, and it takes a step-by-step approach around what it means to utilize a drone. The Eyes Overhead program is the exact sort of environment that can help change both the perception and reality of what it means to operate a drone in emergency situations.
Robinson has been dedicated to helping search and rescue professionals see and recognize the power of drones for some time now. He mentioned that the course is the culmination of a few different developments.
“We’ve been working on this one for over a year now,” Robinson said. “We kind of tried to look into the future and see what was going to happen with 107. Sure enough, what we envisioned was going to happen came true. They came up with a way to make pilots legal, but did nothing to address the proficiency. I’ve been developing platforms and programs to help assist search and rescue and wild land fire officials with their respective jobs due to my experience in those environments. We knew there were some proficiency requirements in those areas that needed to be addressed.”
Ultimately, the course is not only an attempt to categorize each one of the potential scenarios that a law enforcement or fire responder could encounter, but to also establish protocols based on how to effectively utilize a drone in those situations. Officials have all sorts of protocols they already deal with when they encounter emergency situations, and ones that incorporate drones will help make their response that much more effective.
Responding to Situations
Law enforcement and emergency response professionals are the sorts of people who are used to following procedures in their jobs. It’s not anything strange for them for them to establish and utilize a standard operating procedure (SOP) to define how they respond or react. SOPs are established to determine what sort of equipment should be used, what sort of data should be gathered, etc. The SOPs that are being established around drones are all associated with specific situations.
“We’re trying to categorize each one of the potential scenarios that a law enforcement or fire responder could encounter, and we’re talking about the big ones like search and rescue and crime scenes,” Robinson explained. “We’re addressing nothing but response issues. We are not setting up any kind of proactive patrol. These are response issues, which is key. We’re not going out and flying the drones looking for something. We’re only responding to a given situation.”
It’s an important distinction to make since in many ways it’s the exact approach emergency professionals are already taking. When someone calls to report a fire or a missing person, it’s the job of a given official to respond to that situation. They aren’t out actively looking for such things, but they can and do need to utilize every tool they have available to help resolve those situations. The program is named “Eyes Overhead”, but those eyes aren’t being used to in a very specific and noninvasive manner.
Robinson’s course is designed to setup a minimum standard that any incident commander can look to and know the person involved will be able to effectively utilize a drone in it. With that info, commanders will not have to worry about whether someone can complete a given task, because they’ve been specifically trained to do so.
Changing Public Perception
While regulation represented a major obstacle that many officials were unable or unwilling to overcome, it might not be the most significant difficulty that officials are facing in terms of adoption. Something that has been specifically mentioned by first response and emergency professionals is how the public’s perception of drones is such a huge factor in how these tools are or are not utilized.
“We’re going through the process right now of a disruptive technology becoming a more commonplace technology,” Robinson continued. “Part of our whole training process is around how to deal with that perception. We’re helping officials position these programs so that they can be seen positively in the public eyes. Law enforcement and first responders have to be very careful in terms of how they present their use of UAVs and how they apply them because it can easily go to the wrong side of the line. That’s especially true when someone doesn’t have the proficiency and skillset to execute a flight properly.”
That proper execution is what Robinson specifically focused on in designing the course, as it was put together for any agency that wants to use drones. It gets into items like contingency planning and how officials should react, all of which are a major factor in terms of getting the public to see drones as tools that can help resolve a situation that much sooner.
Not executing a drone operation properly extends to areas beyond logistics though. It includes helping the public easily identify what a drone is doing by using identifying lights and operating in the opposite of stealth mode. Everyone should know who is operating a drone to understand how it’s being utilized.
An Acceptable Passing Grade
There are few agencies that have the skillset of being an emergency response professional along with the mission skills when it comes to operating a drone, which is why many of them struggle with adoption. There are a number of different training courses to help operators pass Part 107, but there are very few people who are talking about the specifics of what it means to fly into a situation that has fire or other emergency element. It’s a distinction that can mean the difference between life and death.
However, Robinson is the first to tell anyone who asks him that a given person or agency needs to find these answers for themselves. Anyone looking at this type of class should look at the people that are providing those services, and that includes Robinson himself.
“We say that we’ve got the complete package, but we want people to do their homework and come to that conclusion on their own,” Robinson concluded. “Find someone who has a lot of experience in public safety and also doing a public safety job. Then, see if they have a similar amount of experience doing drone missions. Find those people, and make sure that their background and resume is something you want to add to your program, because that’s ultimately what it comes down to.”
Law enforcement and emergency response professionals have to fly in less than perfect situations in less than ideal conditions. They need to be able to adapt, survive and overcome, all while doing it safely, which is something Robinson has always been focused on. He often says that the only acceptable passing grade for officials is 100%, which means getting the training and insight around the best way to make that grade is absolutely essential.
For more from Gene, see him present Texas Memorial Day Floods: Airspace Response, What Worked and What Didn’t Work at the upcoming Commercial UAV Expo.