How a California police department is using drones

The NY Times posted a detailed article on how a department is using drones to respond to 911 calls and aid in other day-to-day police activities. The use of drones by the police understandably raises concerns among various civil rights groups.

How a California police department is using drones

In a detailed article in the NY Times, Cade Metz writes that the police department of Chula Vista in Southern California uses drones to respond to 911 calls.

In a recent situation, the Chula Vista Police Department had sent a drone across the city to a parking lot where it spotted a young man asleep in a stolen vehicle with drug paraphernalia on his lap. Here's what happened next:

“When the man left the car, carrying a gun and a bag of heroin, a nearby police car had trouble following as he sprinted across the street and ducked behind a wall. But as he threw the gun into a dumpster and hid the bag of heroin, the drone, hovering above him, caught everything on camera. When he slipped through the back door of a strip mall, exited through the front door and ran down the sidewalk, it caught that, too.”

Officers at the police station were watching the live feed from the drone and instructing officers on the ground about the whereabouts of the suspect. Soon after the man was apprehended and both the gun and the heroin were recovered as well.

Since the Chula Vista Police Department started its ‘Drone as First Responder' program two years ago as part of the now-discontinued FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program, more than 4,000 police drone flights have taken place. The department responds to as many as 15 emergency calls per day with a drone.

The Chula Vista Police Department uses both drones from Chinese drone maker DJI as well as from California-based . The Chula Vista's RTK flies itself from the roof of the police station to the location of the emergency and back. Only when it arrives at the scene does a certified drone pilot take control of the unmanned aircraft. A certified pilot is present on the roof of the building during take-off and landing procedures and another officer is at the command station inside.

The Chula Vista Police Department has received a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that allows them to fly the drone beyond the visual line of sight of the pilots up to a distance of three miles. With two launch locations, the police department can cover about 70% of the city.

How A California Police Department Is Using Drones 1

For other emergency situations, the Chula Vista Police Department uses Skydio drones that feature advanced obstacle avoidance capabilities. The police department received a first-of-a-kind COA that allowed “First Responder Tactical within strict parameters.

However, with the increase in the use of police drones by the police the concerns of civil rights groups raised as well.

“Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union's Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology. “Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.”

Besides the Chula Vista Police Department, other police departments have expressed interest in developing their own Drone as First Responder programs as well. During the last few months, two other cities in California and one in Georgia have already started with their own programs that go beyond simply putting a drone in the trunk of a police car.

You can read the entire NY Times article here.

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Photo credit: John Francis Peters  for the NY Times

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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and, for all news related to electric vehicles. He is also a co-host of the PiXL Drone Show on YouTube and other podcast platforms. Haye can be reached at haye @ or @hayekesteloo.

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