8 Steps for Launching a Drone Program For First Responders

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As public safety agencies and first responders face more pressure to meet increasing expectations around safety -- often with limited resources -- more and more agencies are turning to drones as a critical tool for protecting both internal teams and the communities they serve.

But for many, one big question remains -- where do I start? If you’re considering a drone program, here’s 8 key steps to consider to set yourself up for maximum success.

Step 1: define your goals and desired outcomes and determine use cases and missions

Lay the right foundation by first determining what type of program you want to build. This decision will help inform everything from the required certifications to your hardware needs.

Additionally, look at your agency’s use cases and determine what type of missions your UAS will be involved in. This is key to informing purchases of hardware such as aircraft, sensors and accessories

Today, there are two primary models for emergency response. The first is the traditional, “in the trunk” model, intended for one-off use cases like capturing crime scene photos.

If you’re looking to maximize your drone investment and unlock all of the benefits, the second option -- the Drone as a First Responder (DFR) model for full proactive emergency response -- will allow your entire team to benefit from improved aerial intelligence. This model -- which integrates drones into daily operations -- maximizes your drone investment, enabling better and faster resource allocation and deployment, and keeping officers safe through better situational awareness. What’s more, DFR offers improved aerial visibility at a fraction of the cost of traditional tools like helicopters, and most importantly helps reduce crime to improve overall community safety.

Step 2: secure the needed certifications

Once you’ve determined the level of program you’re looking to implement, it’s time to secure the needed certifications.

Part 107 is the most common certification -- and typically the easiest to obtain -- offered to both commercial entities and civilians alike. Operating under Part 107 requires the pilot to pass an FAA proctored test on UAS related topics. Understand that this certification is granted only to an individual, not an agency. The individual may fly for an agency, but under their own Part 107 certificate and within the regulations set forth under the part.

A Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) is offered specifically to public organizations. Although COAs require more effort to obtain, COAs allow agencies to operate UAS as “public aircraft”. This means that while there is more responsibility on the agency to conduct missions, the agency will have more latitude as long as they are operating within the National Airspace (NAS) regulations and within the terms of the COA.  COAs are ideal for first responders because they can allow for operations within controlled airspace, allow for the ability to secure provisions like Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS), and also include an automatic waiver for flight over people in situations where “it is necessary to safeguard human life”. The COA process begins by proving to the FAA that an agency is in fact a government agency. Once approved as a public agency, the agency then applies for the COA by filing and submitting through an FAA website. The process can take as little as 3-4 weeks and as long as 60-90 days depending on the type and complexity of the COA being applied for.

Today, many agencies choose to obtain both types of certificates, securing a COA for the agency and Part 107s for all pilots. This allows for the greatest operating authority while also having all pilots meet the only federal standard and certification for UAS pilots (Part 107). Having both frameworks enables agencies to adhere to the rules that work best in varying situations when flights are being conducted. While these certifications can be daunting, there are existing templates to work from, and companies like Skyfire Consulting, can also help guide you through the process.

Step 3: get your community on board

Today, consumer understanding of commercial drones is limited, and as a result, community concerns are not uncommon. The most successful programs work to educate community residents early and often, communicating transparently about how the drones will be utilized and offering ample opportunity to ask questions. Agencies that implement drone programs should host regular town hall meetings to discuss updates and listen to community concerns. Engaging with your local chapter of the ACLU or other government watchdog organizations is also encouraged to ensure you win and retain the full support of your local community.

Step 4: select your hardware

For first responders, Homeland Security offers a number of grants and programs that provide funding for drone programs and hardware procurement.

Step 5: select your software to fit your KPIs

Driving the highest possible return on your drone investment requires not just the right hardware and regulatory certifications, but the right software to help you execute against your program KPIs, from improving response time to ensuring officer safety and better resource allocation.

For those implementing DFR models, software that enables full drone telepresence is critical for providing full situational awareness to first responders and commanding officers. With the ability to remotely operate the drone, the right experts can take control and gain the exact visibility needed for informing the right response and deploying the needed resources and support. Easy on-the-go access to the live stream in real-time and at low latency ensures responding officers are well-informed and ready for the situation at hand. Because safety and security are always top priority, software should allow collected images and video to be both secure and accessible by authorized users. Finally, the best software should fade into the background, offering easy controls and  built-in safeguards that make the drone virtually uncrashable and allow users to focus on the important tasks at hand.

Step 6: tackle team training

When you submit your COA application, you’ll receive information on the type of training your team needs for your drone program. Beyond pilot training, agencies should ensure that everyone on the team can quickly and easily access the live stream in the field, ideally on both computers and mobile devices. Cape, for example, offers 3-day, 5-day and 2-week training courses to get teams quickly up to speed.

Like with any new initiative, accountability is critical for success, so it’s important to assign an owner for the program who will be responsible for helping with monthly reporting and ownership of ongoing program management.

And training doesn’t stop at launch. Agencies can turn to groups like DARTdrones or Skyfire Consulting that host meetups and training sessions where you can learn from other organizations that have gone through the process and can offer best practices and learnings.

Additionally, a strong training provider will be able to help guide your agency through SOP/SOG and program development. Understanding where within the agency to house the UAS program, developing robust operations, training, and currency manuals, and compliance with FAA documenting and reporting requirements are all key to a successful and safe UAS program

Step 7: initial roll-out

Congratulations - you’re ready to launch! In step one, you laid out the goals you wanted to achieve with your drone program and the KPIs you wanted to measure progress against. At launch, it’s critical to ensure that you’re set up to actively track the needed data for checking progress against those goals.

For example, if one of your key KPIs is to improve resource allocation, ensure you are set up to capture data on the number of calls the drone responds to that do not require officer response, therefore freeing up team time to focus on higher-priority calls. In addition, agencies should use flight tracking software to securely measure and store data from everything including flight hours and hours per drone for maintenance to pilot currency, and flight paths and history.

Step 8: monitor and expand

Drones are responding to calls, data is being tracked and the operation is in full swing. Now what? As with everything, it’s important to set up program checkpoints to monitor progress, and make needed adjustments to the program and drive program expansions based on real impact data. For example, if the drones are being deployed to a few different call zones, and early data shows a much higher call volume in one area than another, you can easily adjust coverage areas to ensure the drones are providing the maximum value.

The agencies who effectively integrate drones into daily emergency response operations -- especially through Drone as a First Responder programs -- will be the ones shaping the future of public safety as we know it. By following the steps outlined here, every agency can be an innovator. Want to learn more? Go to our contact us form and let us know how we can help.

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