Two police departments in California have deployed the first “homeless outreach” drones in the US to broadcast coronavirus safety messages while protecting officers.
In San Pablo, a city north of Oakland, police said the drones they launched on Thursday were just one part of a programme the department was now accelerating as social distancing guidelines limit police operations.
“This technology has exponentially grown in the past couple of years and it will exponentially grow over the next five to 10 years, especially in the environment we are in today — where having that physical police officer response isn’t always the best solution,” said police captain Brian Bubar.
Drones have been used to enforce quarantines in China, but the US has shied away from using them. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, there was a backlash earlier this month when the police used a fleet of drones to encourage social distancing with automated messages telling people to disperse.
“We are trying to save lives, not be big brother,” the department tweeted in response. “If this plan saves one life, then it’s worth it.”
In San Pablo, the use of drones on gave officers their first point of contact with homeless communities since March 19, when Contra Costa county fell under “shelter in place” orders.
The operation involved two of its three drones made by Impossible Aerospace, a US rival to China’s DJI, the world’s largest drone maker. Impossible focuses on commercial and first-responder drones that have a battery life lasting up to 90 minutes.
A day earlier, in Chula Vista, near San Diego, police completed a three-hour homeless outreach mission over “difficult terrain and dense foliage”. Without unmanned aircraft it would have taken two days. The “sensitive and humane” mission covered 26 encampments across eight square miles, according to police chief Roxana Kennedy.
The drones allowed the two police departments to broadcast information in English and Spanish, offering services and directions for help. Both were adamant the technology is being used to offer specific services and information, not patrol populations or conduct unrestricted surveillance.
“The last thing we’d want is for someone to view this as an enforcement tool,” Mr Bubar said.
Sergeant Robert Richer, who manages San Pablo’s drone team, said he had “no doubt” that police agencies across the country would be using drones for similar missions in the months and years ahead, in part because they are “way cheaper” than helicopters.
“It just allows you do a lot more without exposing officers to danger,” he said.
Within months, the San Pablo police department also hopes it can automate its fleet of drones to link up with the city’s “ShotSpotter” programme, which can already detect gunfire with precision thanks to sensors dotting the 2.6 square mile landscape.
“We were the first city in our county to have 100 per cent coverage, so if anyone fires a gun in our city, we actually get GPS co-ordinates of exactly where that gun was fired within seconds,” Mr Bubar said.
If the two programmes were co-ordinated, officers could receive live aerial footage from crime scenes as soon as possible and without any human intervention.
While the idea of police drones in the skies can sound Orwellian and has generated social media backlash, advocates say the attention is a welcome opportunity to educate the public on drones’ potential to save lives and protect officers.
“Imagine you wake up to the horrifying discovery that your child has gone missing,” said Impossible’s chief executive, Spencer Gore. “The police say, ‘We’ll send an officer around.’ Wouldn’t you way rather have an entire armada of drones in the sky blanketing the city with a search party?”