High-Tech Policing: SAPD’s Drone as First Responder Program

San Antonio Department is nurturing a burgeoning drone policing program, aiming to establish it as an official unit eventually. The program leverages automated drones as first responders, a futuristic vision conceptualized by the police chief. Let's dive into this transformative approach to law enforcement and its implications for the city.

Emergence of Drone Policing

Officer Willie Hooten, a seasoned 13-year member of the force, initiates the drone's launch sequence from the department's downtown headquarters. A few blocks away, the drone performs a sweep, finds no cause for concern, and then returns to land automatically. This might sound like science fiction, but it's a common scene in San Antonio's police department these days.

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These drones, part of a program known as “Drone as First Responder,” provide quick responses to service calls, faster than officers on the ground. According to team members, this is a stepping stone toward achieving Police Chief William McManus' vision of using drones as citywide.

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RAVEN: Eyes in the Sky

In the final days of 2018, McManus launched a pioneering initiative, the RAVEN (Robotic Aerial Vehicle Enforcement) program, drawing inspiration from the Chula Vista Police Department in Southern . This department was the first to secure the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) approval to deploy drones in response to 911 calls, marking a significant shift in US law enforcement.

To launch this innovative program, the San Antonio Police Department utilized funds from the longstanding helicopter unit. Officer Moscoso clarified that the FAA granted the department a waiver to fly drones over the city manually. With this permission, officers were required to obtain FAA commercial remote pilot certificates and maintain visual contact with the drones at all times, even when testing automated drones.

The program procured a dozen drones from Chinese technology behemoth DJI, with prices ranging from $500 to $35,000, as revealed by helicopter pilot Scott Clark at a drone summit hosted by the University of the Incarnate Word last month. Interestingly, the Defense Department has flagged the manufacturer as a Chinese military company, yet the sheriff's office continues to operate DJI drones.

High-Tech Policing: Sapd'S Drone As First Responder Program

Today, the RAVEN program employs eight tech-enthusiastic officers who've moved from various roles, such as instruction and patrol, to be a part of this exciting initiative. They're confident about the drones' positive impact on traditional policing.

Sgt. Daniel Anders, who leads RAVEN, affirmed, “It's proven its value over and over. We're getting to the point where the demand is exceeding our ability to meet the demand.”

Officer Manck, a former patrol officer of St. Mary's Strip, explains the drones' significance, saying, “We're providing situational awareness for the officers… Instead of putting officers in danger, we can send a drone to get 360-degree vision of an area. In a way, it's less dangerous for us because we're more removed from the front lines.”

Serving over 1.4 million residents across 504 square miles, the San Antonio department views drones as a cost-effective supplement to their helicopter unit. Established in 1971, this unit currently boasts four helicopters, 18 patrol officers, two supervisors, and four civilian mechanics. But now, their eyes are set on the skies, and drones seem to be the future of policing in San Antonio.

Eight officers from the department's RAVEN program have been utilizing a fleet of 12 drones for diverse operations like crowd monitoring and assisting tactical teams during emergencies. Responding to an average of 300 calls a month, these drones have proven their effectiveness, with the program on the cusp of becoming an official unit.

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Pros and Cons of Drone Policing

While drone policing is not a novel concept, the use of automated rooftop drones adds a new layer of sophistication. These drones, cheaper and easier to handle than helicopters, offer several advantages.

As Officer Hooten puts it, “Having the drones up is having a new set of eyes. It gives us added safety.”

However, the deployment of such technology also sparks concerns over civil liberties. Experts like William Spelman, a criminal justice researcher, emphasize the need for careful usage of such technology due to its potential for surveillance and intrusion.

High-Tech Policing: Sapd'S Drone As First Responder Program

“You can get the drone there in a few minutes to take the picture and then immediately clean the site and let traffic pass,” Spelman explained. “And then the investigator can examine the footage the drone photographs and draw the same conclusions that he or she would having been out there with a tape measure.”

The Journey Ahead

The RAVEN program, initiated by Chief McManus in 2018, has come a long way. The team is now working toward making the Drone as First Responder program an everyday tool and establishing drone substations across the city for rapid deployment.

“The chief's original vision is for one day to have drones first respond to calls instead of officers,” Anders said, “We're laying down the groundwork.”

Conclusion

The San Antonio Police Department's drone program is a testament to the power of technological innovation in law enforcement. But as this new age of drone policing takes flight, it's essential to balance its potential benefits with ethical considerations around privacy and civil liberties.

The journey is just beginning, but as the RAVEN team works toward fulfilling the chief's vision, the drone policing program is set to change law enforcement landscape in San Antonio and potentially beyond.

Photos courtesy of DroneSense.


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Haye Kesteloo
Haye Kesteloo

Haye Kesteloo is the Editor in Chief and Founder of DroneXL.co, where he covers all drone-related news, DJI rumors and writes drone reviews, and EVXL.co, 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 @ dronexl.co or @hayekesteloo.

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