How Drones Offer Public Safety Insights Beyond the Limitations of the Sky


By Randy Gluck, Director of Public Safety at Cape

Today, small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS)—drones–give organizations visibility and access to a level of information and insight like never before. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are capable of uncovering untapped opportunities across a variety of industries—from oil and gas and agriculture, to telecommunications and construction. And, while it may still be some time before consumers look to the sky for their packages or food delivery, sUAS are already making a big impact on public safety.

In an emergency, advanced technology can mean the difference between a life saved or lost. Whether  assisting with a traffic call or responding to a fire or a missing person’s report, today’s first responders and public safety officials rely on speed, functionality, and efficiency to get the job done. With sUAS technology more accessible and easier to use than ever before, law enforcement agencies around the world are better able to equip their teams with the innovative tools they need to do their jobs more efficiently and improve the safety of their communities.

The Evolving Role of sUAS in Public Safety

As equipment and resources continue to advance, sUAS are likely to play a bigger role in assisting law enforcement and first responders. These sUAS provide increased situational awareness, including real-time visibility and intelligence to better assist officers and personnel with on-scene information and updates. Traditionally, getting officers in the field at the level of needed visibility has been a major challenge. Physical constraints, such as the distance, terrain, or dangerous weather and conditions, have often prevented teams from getting real-time aerial visibility, making situations more difficult to navigate. Beyond physical limitations, agencies often lack the needed resources and internal experts vital to maintaining constant visuals on situations and are forced to do more with less, potentially compromising safety and valuable time. Additionally, the limitations of time and expenses required to quickly and effectively cover needed ground and bring in outside resources and equipment such as helicopters for overhead visibility put agencies in a tight spot when the right resources and support are needed most.  

Regardless of the situation, whether it’s a response to an emergency or a search and rescue operation, the ability to gain visibility and access real-time information through full sUAS telepresence enables teams to make quick and accurate decisions, helping to find and constrain criminals; support victims; and, ultimately, save lives.

In addition to assisting officers and first responders, aerial visualization and real-time data can significantly improve operations. With access to aerial intelligence, agencies can better allocate resources and reduce costs, increase productivity and efficiency, and improve safety and protection for their personnel.

Above and Beyond Expectations  

As safety concerns rise—in part due to recent terrorist attacks at public events—communities expect local law enforcement to have access to the latest tools and technology to keep them safe. In a recent study from Cape, 84 percent of U.S. residents see technology as a critical investment for safety and expect first responders to leverage the best possible tools to ensure the public’s well-being.[1] In fact, respondents cited investment in tools and technology that keep residents and visitors safe as the single most important area for city budget allocation.

Safety is also an important factor for people when deciding where to live (95 percent), which events to attend (82 percent), and where to vacation (93 percent). Investing in technology and tools to better operate is critical to ensuring public safety in communities.

Building Community Support

As sUAS technology becomes an increasingly integral part of public safety operations, it will be critical to address the public perception of sUAS usage and existing privacy concerns. According to research, U.S. consumers are ready to embrace these systems as a public safety tool. In fact, 71 percent of today’s consumers support law enforcement’s use of sUAS in their community, and 62 percent explicitly say they would feel safer if their local first responders used such technology to protect their communities. But the study also highlights a gap in consumer knowledge and understanding of drones is still limited. In fact, the study shows that 55 percent of U.S. consumers know what a “drone” is, but admit to knowing little about them.

Education and Transparency

Today, with nearly 70 percent of consumers considering privacy and surveillance to be a concern when it comes to sUAS use for public safety, education about both sUAS use and impact will be instrumental for both improving public perception and enabling widespread adoption.

Ensuring the public feels comfortable with sUAS usage is crucial to garnering public trust and strengthening community relations. The survey showed that a majority of U.S. consumers agree better education (84 percent) and transparent communication (88 percent) about how sUAS can improve public safety and how the technology will be used can ease concerns about sUAS initiatives from public safety agencies. In fact, the study found that the more community members understand about sUAS and their usage, the more support local agencies and municipalities will have when launching and expanding programs that leverage drones for public safety.

Success Around the World

While full-blown sUAS public safety programs are still in the early stages in the United States, cities around the world are already finding success with the integration of drones into daily operations. In Ensenada, Mexico, for example, sUAS significantly reduced crime and improved safety throughout the city. The Ensenada Municipal Police Department (DSMP) reported that, in only four months, the use of sUAS helped to reduce the city’s crime rate by more than 10 percent, with more than 500 arrests directly attributed to sUAS.[2]

Additionally, the agency’s use of sUAS led to a 30 percent decrease in home robberies, 25 percent decrease in violent robberies, and 22 percent decrease in vehicle thefts. With UAVs able to arrive on scene within specified coverage areas within roughly one minute, the DSMP officers are able to gain complete visibility into situations before arriving on scene, keeping them and the local community safe. Beyond crime reduction, sUAS equipped with the telepresence software reduced nonemergency call response times by 95 percent and emergency call response times by 90 percent, illustrating the real impact this technology can have on community safety.[3]

What’s Next

As the need for sUAS technology continues to accelerate and public support for it grows, law enforcement agencies will continue to develop and implement programs for the expanded use of sUAS. In an initiative aimed at helping to enable the safe expansion of sUAS integration in the United States, the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) was announced in late 2017. Overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the UAS IPP is a big step forward for the United States, with the ability to shape the regulatory environment and the future of sUAS. The cities, public organizations, and corporate partners selected to participate will be at the forefront of defining what sUAS regulations will look like and, ultimately, what the expansion of sUAS use across industries will entail.[4]

Public safety is a core focus of the UAS IPP, and law enforcement is one of the most likely industries to see the impact of the program, with a number of participating municipalities and their private sector partners developing initiatives aimed at improving the safety of communities.

In Chula Vista, California, sUAS are incorporated into daily emergency response efforts, acting as crucial tools of first responders for more than 10 hours each day. According to Roxana Kennedy, Chula Vista chief of police:

“Drones are not a replacement for officers, they are an enhancement. They play a critical role in giving our officers and first responders a comprehensive understanding of situations and serve as an innovative and powerful tool to efficiently assess and assist in our daily operations.”[5]

The Time Is Now

Perhaps more than any other technology to date, sUAS offer the ability to streamline and improve operations at law enforcement agencies. Beyond driving efficiencies, sUAS are enabling safer communities and safer officers.

In the public safety sector, access to full aerial visibility can mean the difference between life and death. Unmanned aerial systems are a critical tool for law enforcement agencies and first responders, and the results to date show that the sky is no longer the limit when it comes to keeping communities safe.


[1] Cape "Superheroes In The Sky", November 7, 2018.

[2] Jack Stewart, “A Single Drone Helped Mexican Police Drop Crime 10 Percent,”WIRED, June 11, 2018.

[3] Stewart, “A Single Drone Helped Mexican Police Drop Crime 10 Percent,”WIRED, June 11, 2018.

[4] Federal Aviation Administration, “UAS Integration Pilot Program,” May 7, 2018.

[5] Roxana Kennedy, Chula Vista Chief of Police.

Reprinted from Police Chief Magazine, Vol. 85, No. 12, pages 54 - 55, 2018. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc. 44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314. Further reproduction without express permission from IACP is strictly prohibited.

NewsAlex Weitzel