Law enforcement agencies have begun taking to drones with a vengeance: Some 1,500 or more nationwide now deploy drones in a variety of critical roles, including search-and-rescue missions and crime scene analysis. But perhaps no role keeps the public safer than catching criminal suspects, sometimes in the act, but just as often, after they flee and seek to avoid capture.
Drones in a handful of locales can now respond automatically to a 911 call, without remote piloting. The call triggers the launch of a drone from the roof of police headquarters and based on digitally provided GPS coordinates, the aircraft arrives on the scene well before field officers do. Once there, the drone can scan the entire crime scene and provide officers with the “situational awareness” they need to prepare their tactical response. Research shows that the Drone First Responder (DFR) program, first pioneered by the Chula Vista Police Department back in 2018, can de-escalate potentially violent encounters with armed suspects, reducing police and civilian casualties alike.
Now, Skydio, one of the nation’s leading drone surveillance providers, wants to extend DFR’s capabilities to include the pursuit of fleeing criminal suspects.
The San Mateo, CA-based company recently made headlines when it announced that it would no longer by manufacturing and selling its once-popular drones for recreational fliers and drone racers, including the Skydio 2. Instead, the 8-year old firm is concentrating its efforts on a slew of commercial niches, especially infrastructure inspections, but also increasingly on aerial surveillance support to law enforcement agencies.
In fact, over 200 public safety agencies in 47 states already deploy Skydio drones, but the firm’s latest application developed in conjunction with the technology company Axon, could extend their capabilities even further.
What does Skydio have in mind?
A drone that can track fleeing criminal suspects without the need for police to engage in dangerous high-speed chases. The drone, dubbed the X-10, comes equipped with lots of carrying capacity – enough to include a loudspeaker, a high-intensity spotlight and a thermal imaging zoom camera that can track and find suspects at night, based on their heat signature alone.
The X-10 can fly 45 miles per hour and can fly continuously over long distances without having to pause and recharge, losing a suspect in the process. Its zoom camera is high-powered enough to zero in on a license plate, instantly identifying the vehicle’s owner and likely driver. The upshot? Fleeing criminal suspects can run but they can’t really hide — at least not for long.
Civil libertarians and privacy experts have expressed some concerns about the X-10, mainly its ability to photograph license plates – and in theory, to fly over and film civic protesters and even ordinary citizens who are gathered together to parade or simply enjoy themselves. Those concerns have been fueled by the decision of the NYPD in recent months to monitor recent public events and even backyard barbecues and dance parties where large number of people were gathered.
New York mayor Eric Adams, who’s emerged as a prominent advocate of police drones, has defended his department activities, saying they’re intended to defuse tensions and reduce the possibility of violence. In one recent public parade, NYPD drones did allow law enforcement to intervene quickly and to identify and apprehend the sources of a disturbance that might have turned ugly.
More clearly defined protocols for X-10 use may well be needed. But in New York and elsewhere some important protocols are already in place. The NYPD does not routinely patrol crime-ridden neighborhoods with its rapidly expanding drone fleet and normally must obtain a search warrant before launching a formal investigation. Police are supposed to refrain from attaching facial recognition technology to their drone cameras, and usually agree to erase all video footage captured by its UAVs unless a criminal case is still pending (for which the evidence may be needed at trial).
Despite these concerns, usually voiced by advocacy groups, many ordinary citizens are pleased with the enhanced police capabilities that drones like the X-10 can provide. New York, like many US cities, is facing an enormous crime wave in which an upsurge of car-jackings, especially, feature prominently. Being able to track vehicles quickly before they are used to commit additional crimes is essential for maintaining public safety.
NYPD officials plan to deploy at least one X-10 in each of its 70 precincts. There is also talk of equipping patrol vehicles with the new drone, which is small enough to fit inside a car trunk. Officers can launch the drones at will, and with their 5G connectivity, their movements can be controlled by pilots at remote facilities or command centers.