Sky’s The Limit

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer


Audrey Fraizer

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) are no longer flights of fantasy. They are the eyes and ears of science. They reveal hidden ancient artwork. They perform incredible feats under the direction of a drone pilot navigating wherever their curiosity guides them.

The list is limited only by imagination, even as it applies to emergency services, and don’t expect drones to go away anytime soon.

“Drones are not a trend,” said Ivan Whitaker, Director, Comprehensive Client Implementations, Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC). “Initially, drones will take the lead in safety issues. They complement the technology to get more information for responder protection and, for the patient, save time critical to life and safety.”

Their future is limited only by imagination, as public services (police, and fire/EMS responders, and communications) embrace the technology, both in concept (the possibilities) and reality. According to the Center of the Study of the Drone database1:

  • At least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire and EMS, and public safety agencies have acquired drones in recent years.
  • Between 2009 and 2015, at least 148 agencies appeared to have started a drone program. In 2016, 258 agencies appeared to have started a drone program—more than all the prior years combined—and in 2017, 334 agencies appeared to have started a drone program. In 2017, the total number of agencies with drones increased by 82 percent. As of this writing, 120 agencies appear to have acquired drones in 2018.
Drones can be sent in to access dangerous law enforcement situationssuch as an active shooter incidentthereby reducing risk to responders. They can document evidence at an accident scene during rush hour, relay thermal images of hot spots, locate people lost in difficult terrain, and measure, transmit, and store data to update topographic maps.

Drones will be a component of the IAED medical, fire, and police protocols and integrated as part of response configuration, Whitaker said. The process is in the earliest planning stages with consideration weighing heavily on factors prevalent to drone use in general.

“Drones will be pivotal in the way they shape communication and complement the goals of faster, safer, and more efficient information gathering,” Whitaker said. “We can deploy these. We can save lives. It’s something we’re getting ready for in the framework of thinking differently about feet on the ground response.”

But don’t start worrying about job security, Whitaker added.

Drones won’t replace individuals in EMS, he said. Rather, they will make the job safer for responders and, perhaps, more satisfying through the introduction of new tasks in communication.

Here are a few examples of current drone technology:

Beginning in 2020, an emergency dispatcher will send an ambulance while providing the caller with instructions on how to use the AED delivered by a drone. In March 2018, the drone company Flirtey received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval of drone delivery flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in the Reno-Sparks-Carson City area in Nevada (USA).

Drones for search and rescue purposes in Scandinavia were implemented in June 2017 at Tylösand Surf Livesaving to locate swimmers in distress and help them through drone delivery of self-inflatable buoys.2

At Brewster Ambulance, Weymouth, Massachusetts (USA), initial plans for drones were their application in search and rescue, followed by HAZMAT, fires, and a handful of EMS functions.

“That turned into 15 to 30 flights within months,” said Chris DiBona, Brewster Ambulance Service, Director of Clinical Quality and Certified Drone Pilot. “We were doing bridge and pier inspections, overwatch for white sharks in beach areas, roof inspections for snow weight. The applications now are limitless. You can use it realistically in any application you want to use it for. For a fair, at an event, for public relations, or to take images of our new building being constructed.”3

Remote mapping

A person could walk for miles in rural North Central Texas (USA) and see nothing but prairie grass, cotton and wheat crops, and the occasional longhorn cattle or a lone armadillo beneath the wide expanse of blue cloudless skies.

A lot of the rural region is the “home on the range” scenario with, nowadays, a drone or two off in the horizon. While some may never see the day an Amazon drone flies overhead, whisking packages to remote customers, there are certainly others heralding drones for services outside commercial or recreational ventures.

Take the North Central Texas Emergency Communications District (NCT9-1-1) for example. The 43 PSAPs in the 9,000-square-mile, 13 county telecommunications district provides service to roughly 1.7 million people without any sign of numbers abating any time soon.

The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is densely populated, with a suburbia sprawling to accommodate the largest average growth rate of any state. Demographers say Dallas-Fort Worth will grow by 4.5 million more people in the next 20 years; Collin County is expected to double in population in the next 20.4

But back to where the buffaloes still occasionally roam.

Outside the megalopolis, long stretches of uninterrupted farmland on flat plains, rolling hills, and grasslands dominate the terrain. The plains are “Where the West Begins”—Fort Worth’s famous slogan—and where future growth will most likely affect at the fringes. Population growth is spreading into sparsely inhabited plains with the current and predicted rate posing more than a few challenges to NCT9-1-1, with GIS data collection for better call location accuracy among the chief initiatives.

That’s where their interest in drones started. The process traditionally in place for addressing new subdivisions in rural regions is time-consuming and outdated, explained Amelia Mueller, NCT9-1-1 Communication Director. Addressing coordinators manually drive roads with GPS devices to map road centerlines, site address points, and other GIS data layers, or they use hand-drawn plats from the county appraisal office. The smaller the community, the less often the geographic data is updated.

“Accurate GIS data is the foundation of NG911's commitment to better call location accuracy,” Mueller said. “But with these methods it can take weeks or months before accurate data is available for telecommunicators.”

In unaddressed regions, the issue is compounded by a PSAP map showing an emergency call for an empty field and not the housing community under development. Without street markers and other geographical data, response time increases and, through no fault of EMS, jeopardizes the people seeking police, fire, or EMS assistance.

The NCT9-1-1 GIS team decided that there had to be a better way, Mueller said, and on Oct. 5, 2018, they performed the first pilot flight of their new UAS program to determine if drone technology could be more efficient in collecting GIS data. The team—led by GIS Manager Roger Mann and 911 GIS Supervisor David Dean— contacted the addressing coordinator in Johnson County, a 740-square-mile rural county in the NCT9-1-1 region, asking about a suitable test subdivision under construction.

Mann and Dean did the legwork before arriving on scene. They navigated complex legalities of UAS flight restrictions and FAA compliance and regulations. Next came what proved to be the hardest part in the long run. They needed written permission from landowners and developers to fly a drone over the 60-acre subdivision selected. It was a tedious process, but once tracking them down and securing their signatures, they purchased an Inspire II drone UAS, which is known for its mapping capabilities, and commenced to fly it.

The drone captured the defined imagery in a little over four hours, including the time it took for equipment dismantling, both Mann and Dean explained. The data was uploaded to a lab specializing in drone surveillance, and within 48 hours, it was available to the Johnson County address coordination team and Johnson County PSAP.

“What a huge difference,” Dean said. "Hours compared to the weeks it takes using manual methods.”

But not only was timesaving a factor. The data collected by the UAS also proved to be superior, allowing for better imagery and more accurate dispatch maps.

The second stage was applying the same drone technology in other counties in the NCT9-1-1 region. They visited county administrators and engineers for rules and regulations governing permission requirements to fly drones in manned air space. People they approached were intrigued by the possibilities.

“Everyone could see how it would make life much easier for us,” Mann said. “They were willing to assist in a matter of public safety; the problem was getting them to act on it.”

The overriding hurdle was the consent signatures. The NCT9-1-1 GIS team wanted a process standardized across counties to permit drone mapping and a process that would save the footwork of individually contacting the landowners and developers involved.

They proposed a bill in the Texas House of Representatives that would allow images to be captured by government entities “for the purpose of the provision of 9-1-1 service” (Tex. H.B. 3164, 86d Leg. R.S. (2019)). The bill was rolled into a package of five distinct drone proposals, which ultimately doomed its approval. The NCT9-1-1 GIS team is submitting the proposal again next term with the hope that the legislature considers it separately from the commercial drone ventures.

“It’s not on hold,” Dean said. “We’re all about call routing to enhance our ability to increase the accuracy and speed of 911 calls and getting the information into our databases. The obstacles take a lot of tenacity to overcome, and we’re trying different ways to approach them.” Twenty-nine and counting

It has been almost two years since the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Winter Haven, Florida (USA), rolled out the Aerial Response Team (ART) and their fleet of 29 UAVs. Not for a second has Sheriff Grady Judd looked back with anything but pride.

“Polk County is always on the cutting edge of technology, and this is a remarkable addition,” Judd said. “The Aerial Response Team enhances our ability to keep our community and our deputies safe. It’s great customer service.”

Customer service, in this case, means going the extra step to find a child reported missing, dropping a life preserver to someone struggling to stay afloat, directing K-9 units in apprehending criminal suspects, and leading a lost hiker to the right trail.

There are so many uses, Judd said, that they’re still coming up with ways to complement the work of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s five patrol districts. And the future holds even more promise, depending on the industry’s increasing technology and the latitude state government grants to the air space.

Florida drone law restricts law enforcement’s drone use to emergencies (specifically to a terrorist threat or “swift action” to prevent loss of life or to search for a missing person) and requires warrants for all other types of deployment. State law also prohibits the use of a drone to capture an image of privately owned property or the owner, tenant, or occupant of such property without consent if a reasonable expectation of privacy exists. Exceptions to the latter fall under the “swift action” clause, such as hostage situations or escalating domestic disputes.

The emergency role has led to celebrated search and rescue operations and apprehensions of criminal suspects, with the common denominator centered on the drone’s ability to “see” into dense or otherwise obstructed areas that are next to impossible to view through the naked eye. Drones have led stranded hikers out of swamps, pursued domestic violence suspects fleeing into the woods, and kept close watch during a tense standoff between police and a kidnapping suspect.

Each of the sheriff’s office’s five districts and their FAA certified drone pilots navigate drones launched from a specially designed ART vehicle. Deployment is an emergency dispatch response configuration much the same way as a K-9 unit, squad car, or, in large-scale incidents, mobile command vehicles. Nine of the drones are reserved for operations unique to public service but not specifically a law enforcement emergency. Polk County fire departments can request drone assistance to assess building and wildland fires, and narcotics detectives can seek a warrant for illegal drug surveillance. Medical use has so far been confined to assessing active traffic accidents for injuries and fatalities, although Judd anticipates significant medical applications as the technology develops.

The many drone applications did not develop overnight. The sheriff’s office experimented with several drone models, studied national and state drone policy and regulations, trained and FAA certified ART team members (there are now 20 and many more standing in line to apply), and conducted an extensive community relations campaign. Judd did not want the public surprised when glancing up into the flight path of a law enforcement drone.

“That could have ended the project right there,” Judd said. “We operate in total transparency and emphasized how the technology will benefit the community. We needed citizen buy-in, and with that we’ve been able to avoid many of the complications you hear about.”

The future might not have flocks of public service drones in the airspace; however, Judd is keen on enhancing current operations, given factors such as less restrictive regulations, although he does support and understand privacy considerations.

“Wherever the science and technology go, the county will be there,” he said.

Before takeoff

Before investing in flight, study the regulations and keep abreast of government policies.

Pilot-operators must obtain a remote pilot certificate (FAA’s sUAS Rule, Part 107). First-time pilots must pass an aeronautical knowledge test and register with the FAA.

UAV operations often overlap within controlled airspace, which is shared with manned aircraft. Approvals to fly in controlled airspace generally take up to 90 days, although the FAA's Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability provides a traffic management service to secure authorizations near real time.

Government agencies who plan to build substantial UAS programs can apply for a jurisdictional Certificate of Authorization (COA) that relaxes flight restrictions and garners short-term approvals for emergencies.

An FAA Notice of Public Rule Making released in February proposes expanded sUAS capabilities, including flying over crowds of people and nocturnal flight. It could take a year or longer to finalize those rules after they are proposed, meaning widespread flights over crowds probably won’t be permitted until 2020 or later.5


1Gettinger D. “Public Safety Drones: An Update.” Center for the Study of the Drone. 2018; May. https://dronecenter.bard.edu/files/2018/05/CSD-Public-Safety-Drones-Update-1.pdf (accessed July 9, 2019).

2 Claesson A. “Emergency Drone System Displays Effective EMS and Rescue Applications.” Journal of Emergency Medical Services. 2018; June 1. https://www.jems.com/articles/print/volume-43/issue-6/features/emergency-drone-system-displays-effective-ems-and-rescue-applications.html (accessed July 8, 2019).

3“Meet the Brewster Ambulance Drones.” Brewster Ambulance Service. https://www.brewsterambulance.com/blog/meet-the-brewster-ambulance-drones (accessed July 9, 2019)

4Wick A. “A City of Sprawl Goes Urban.” D Magazine Dallas and the New Urbanism. 2018. https://www.dmagazine.com/publications/d-magazine/2018/dallas-and-the-new-urbanism/a-city-of-sprawl-goes-urban/ (accessed July 8, 2019).

5Levin A. “Groundbreaking U.S. Plan Would Permit Drone Flights Over Crowds.” Bloomberg. 2019; Jan. 19. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-14/groundbreaking-u-s-plan-would-permit-drone-flight-over-crowds (accessed July 8, 2019).