DRONES MAKES MY WORK SAFER: - Drones is a phenomenal tool for first responders, says agent Matt Hardesty at Chula Vista Police Department while flying into "The Jungle", a hard-to-access area in Chula Vista.

Drones as first responders: New superhero in the police

You might want to read this twice: 1431 missions, 214 arrests, average respons time - first on scene 150 seconds. The drone as first responders program (DFR) at Chula Vista Police Department is one of a kind.
Photojournalist: Anders Martinsen

In just over a year the results from a unique drone program in the city of Chula Vista, the second largest city in San Diego county has truly made headlines in the drone industry.

In October 2018 Chula Vista Police Department  (CVPD) started  using drones as first responders. And the results so far. Pretty amazing according to drone experts.

THE DRONE FLEET: Chula Vista Police Department primarily uses the DJI Matrice 210 in additon to DJI Phantom 4, DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Inspire 1 and Skydio 2. The launch site for the Matrice is on the roof-top of the police station in Chula Vista.

–  CVPD can proactively cover about 17 of the 52 square miles of our city with drones launched from two sites. Our goal this year is to add launch sites to provide 100% aerial support coverage during daylight hours 7 days a week by the end of the year, says Vern Sallee, patrol operations captain at CVPD

Want to see the whole story? – Click on the link to view the story from Chula Vista Police Department in high resolution


How the DFR program works

CVPD is a part of the FAA`s Integration Pilot Program (IPP) which started in October 2017, and FAA Part 107-licenced pilots are based on the rooftops making the drone ready for lauch and making sure that batteries can be charged and swapped quickly. But their primary function is to maintain visual awareness of the airspace where the drone is operating and to be able to take control over the drone if needed.

The teleoperator is monitoring 911 calls from the drone operation room and decides when to launch the drone.

According to CVPD the teleoperator may or may not be an FAA-trained pilot, but is a sworn police officer experienced in incident management. The officer’s skill set is managing the holding calls in the computer-aided dispatch sytem (CAD), then deciding which incidents to launch the drone toward and managing police response to any incident. Often the teleoperator will respond to holding calls and clear them without the need to send officers, says Fritz Reber, former police captain at CVPD, who is one of the founders of the DFR program at CVPD.

DFR OPERATIONS ROOM: Officer Kyle Roberts and Agent Matt Hardesty works as a team. One teleoperator from the rooftop and one of them monitors holding and incoming 911 calls and then decide when to launch the drone. Photo: Anders Martinsen

– In january we launched the drone 229 times, DFR truly is proven to be a valuable tool for deescaltion and it provides us with real time data and incident command support to street cops, often before they arrive on the scene, says Sallee to UAS Norway`s Dronemagazine.

BETTER INTEL – BETTER DECISIONS: – This results in less force used, safer cops and safer communities. It’s even safer for suspects when cops have the right intel, tactics and tools to take them into custody with the minimum amount of force needed under the circumstances, says Sallee. Photo: CVPD

Off-the-shelf drones

– We using off-the-shef drones and are currently using DJI Matrice 210 V2. The drone is equipped with a 30X optical zoom in addition to the option of using a thermal camera, says Sallee.

In addition CVPD have recently started exploring with drones for low level flights, like search in areas like backyards. For this they are testing the new Skydio 2 which gives them an unique alternative to get real-time info from a lower angel the the Matrice.

DRONE PROGRAM STRATEGIST: – We are on pace to fly over 2,700 missions in 2020, not counting the launch sites we hope to add to extend our range and impact, says Vern Sallee

With the recently added Skydio 2 to the program, officers can deploy the smaller drone immediatly at any location to get access to hard-to-access areas, search for missing persons or to locate leeing suspects.

EYES IN THE SKY: Chula Vista will be using 4 Skydio 2’s in daily operations and soon may be able to fly them remotely using their existing teleoperations capabilities through DFR. Photo: Anders Martinsen

Community helped to create the drone program

– We do not have any general funds that goes to the drone program, but our police foundation helped us with some of the initial cost that were for the drones. So basically it was the community that came to help us to establish the drone program. In addition we have some asset seizure funding, but nothing pays for personell, says chief Roxana Kennedy at CVPD.

– There was absolutely no hessitation. We knew that this was the right thing to do for our community. We established a forum and network so our community in advance could understand how and when the drones would be used. Because we did a long time ago, mentally we have had overwhemling positive support for the drone program in our community for using drones proactive instead of reaticve, says Kennedy.

Any challenges?

– Absolutely. Funding is one of them,but we are ahead of the rest and it is a crawl, walk run project. People do not always understad what we are doing, so we have been trying to do as much outreach as possible. You have to see it to belive it. For me as the chief of the police I will not stop, I know what it means for my officers and community and also potential suspects out there. We make better decisions with drones, we do not have a crystal bowl to know what peoples intention are. We can not know if they are mental ill or under influence, it is a challenge for us, so with the new tools are making better decisions. So my job will be to find more funding so we an continue the program and expand, says Kennedy.

FUTURE OF DRONES: – It is wide open, for us we are hopeful that we can expand city wide. Potentially 9 or more launch sites. I have no plan of stopping it, it will be revolutionizing and amazing for the police and the community, says chief Roxana Kennedy. Photo: Anders Martinsen

Drone flight history maps

In order to achieve public transparency CVPD have made public all drone fligthts. On the website they show the flight and explains the reason for lauch of the drones.

– Public acceptance and transparence is the key to success in the community, says Vern Sallee. We need to be so transparent as possible so that the community do understand that we do not use the drones for surveillance.

TRANSPARENCY: To achieve public transparency, CVPD partnered with 911 Security to use their drone detection software to track all drone flights launched by the Chula Vista police department Photo: Screenshot

-We do not use it for routine patrols. If they see a drone from CVPD they know it is an emergency. This underlines for us the importance that the community can trust why we are using drones as first responders, says Sallee.