Chula Vista’s Drones: Wireless-Enabled “Game Changers” for Public Safety

An emergency call, a drone in flight, and dispatched responders. Thanks to innovations in public safety, the availability of real-time information is now a powerful tool to help law enforcement. Responding officers arrive sooner, knowing the precise location for emergencies, and gain increased situational awareness by observing on-the-ground activities before arrival. Additionally, video evidence helps evaluate and prosecute crimes. In these examples and more, advanced wireless technologies are saving valuable time and resources and keeping our communities safe.

In over 6,000 emergency situations, the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) has been aided by new members of the force. They each weigh just over 34 pounds, measure just under a yard across, run on batteries and go by the initials of DFR: Drone as First Responder.

DFRs have helped ground patrols safely clear building exteriors, document accident and crime scenes, search for lost and missing persons, and more. Typically, police rely on helicopters for such overhead views, but these vehicles must launch from an airport and are too expensive for most departments to afford. A drone, by contrast, can take flight from a rooftop and be at an incident site in minutes, streaming video to officers’ cars and smartphones in real-time.

 “This was a game changer for us,” said Captain Don Redmond, who assumed leadership of the Chula Vista’s DFR program in 2019.

Ready at a moment’s notice

When the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created its Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) as a way to test integrating  drone operations into the national airspace, Chula Vista was one of ten cities that participated. In fact, CVPD was the only police agency in the country to be an IPP member. Chula Vista, the second-largest city in San Diego County, was well positioned for the nation’s first Drone as a First Responder program.

With a CVPD lieutenant who was a drone enthusiast and a departmental UAS team studying best practices, in 2017, the CVPD launched its first drone. Its purpose: to provide police operations with airborne support in a safe, responsible, and transparent manner, and in doing so reduce police response times, preserve the peace, and improve quality of life in the metropolitan area. 

Drones at police departments are nothing new, Redmond explained. Many police departments equip their vehicles with a “drone in trunk.” But there are many complications with this approach. For example, an officer has to both get clearance to fly the drone and take it to an authorized site—time-consuming steps in situations when every second counts.

Chula Vista’s drones, by contrast, are ready and FAA-cleared to launch at a moment’s notice. When an incident arises, the staff monitoring emergency calls contacts a trained teleoperator. In accordance with FAA regulations, the teleoperator then works with a rooftop-stationed pilot in command to guide the drone’s flight from launch through return. The drone’s powerful on-board camera streams HD video back to the teleoperator and the cellphones of the first responders, supervisors, and command staff so they too can see exactly what the drone is seeing. 

“It is a transformational method of policing that has reduced overall response times and increased officer and community safety,” said Redmond.

Rigorous measures to earn public trust

One of the biggest priorities in implementing the program was building community trust, Redmond said. This involved specialized research by the police department’s UAS team, meetings with organizations from community groups to the ACLU, and extensive outreach: through the media, in public forums, and over the CVPD website, with two-way channels for members of the public to express concerns and provide feedback. 

“We had a drone program for a year before we ever bought a drone,” Redmond said.

He emphasized that drones are only deployed in response to emergencies, and that during flight they take precautions to point the camera towards the emergency location during the response and skyward upon return to preserve the public’s privacy and maintain trust with their community.

Videos are rigorously safeguarded. While livestreaming over wireless networks provides response teams with real-time visibility, the videos themselves are stored on a SIM card which is removed from the drone after each flight. Recordings are downloaded to a secure database, where they can be assigned to a case as evidence, then purged according to department policies.

Expanding, partnering, and innovating

CVPD began its drone operations with one launch location and a range of one nautical mile and didn’t stop there.

The program received one of the FAA’s first beyond visual line of sight waivers and added three more locations. The second, a hospital rooftop about two miles south of the police department, expanded the DFR’s coverage area to roughly 30% of the geographic area of the city and about 70% of the priority calls for service. 

The third site, a hotel by a mall, recognized the benefit of increased security. So did a community college, Redmond said, along with the program’s potential to introduce its UAS students to drones in action.

What’s next for CVPD’s aerial first responders?

According to Redmond, the department is hoping to expand into nighttime operations and looking at mesh towers so it can launch drones on its own network. And with advances in technology and regulations, he said, Chula Vista might eventually see autonomous self-charging drones housed in docks throughout the city, ready to go at the push of a button.

Watch the CVPD DFR video:

 

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