An Exemplary Police Drone Program

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Drones have become increasingly popular tools for law enforcement departments across the country. Huntsville, Alabama is one such place, with a very successful drone program that was implemented with careful planning and support from city leaders. The program is increasing in size and scope, and the successes are attracting attention from neighboring agencies. Huntsville, with a population of 216,000, prides itself on being a “technology-driven” city, and has been for much of its history. Huntsville was one of the early homes of the U.S. rocketry programs and that earned it the nickname “The Rocket City.”

Intentional Beginnings
Huntsville Police Department first started looking into drones in 2017. The
department was originally looking for drones that could support officers with real-time
intelligence, as well as collecting forensic and crime scene information.

In early 2019, HSVPD sought the counsel and partnership support from our trusted
technology provider, Westwind Computer Products Inc. regarding what sUAS and
supporting solutions were available. It was found that the Autel Evo II platform
suited our needs and created our foundation of success.

Unlike some other drone programs around the country, this one had support from
commanders and city leaders. The higher-ups understood the potential value of a
drone program. Unlike many programs that start from the ground up, often with
pilots bringing drones they personally own, Hunstsville developed a plan for their
program long before purchasing drones.

HSVPD took about a year to develop and fine tune their plan and training, with
support from the police chief and city leaders. This helped them determine mission
roles and other important information, allowing them to make the most informed
decisions possible.

HSVPD took an approach they called “patrol embedded.” Drone pilots are patrol
officers working across all precincts. This approach was highly effective for several
reasons.

“These officers can respond to an event in precinct in under 5-10 minutes, or are on
scene anyway as part of their patrol duties. We have also found that this model
takes advantage of the officer’s knowledge of the area and each precincts unique
needs.”

A Program that Works
The drone program quickly proved its worth.
“Our first operation year, we flew a little over 300 flights with 9 pilots. Last year, we
flew 1,500 plus flights. We are able to provide major support to traffic investigation,
drug interdiction, and special teams. It is still work to help everyone understand
how this resource can benefit day-to-day operations, but I am really amazed at the
breadth of mission types we are now flying. For example with traffic investigations,
THI usually does not have to wait for a pilot, they are already on scene,” said Chad
Tillman of Huntsville PD.

Drone use has increased about 300 percent per year, and they’ve played a vital role
in a wide range of police missions.
In 2021, HSVPD flew drones 1241 times for a total of 273 flight hours. They have 16
Autel EVO IIs and two Brinc Lemurs S drones. They added 16 pilots to their roster,
for a total of 21 pilots and 7 in reserve.

Tillman continues on. “About 80% of our mission support flights are rated
‘positive effect on mission outcome,’ with 25% rated ‘critical to mission success.’ The
Autel EVO II has been a game changer for us. With its ease of use, long mission time
and durability, we know we can trust our aircraft to perform when called on.”
Along with the drones themselves, Autel’s Enterprise add-ons have proven valuable.
The ability to stream information via the Live Deck was notably valuable; HSVPD is
able to share information with officers in the field, command teams, and other
agencies.

The program’s success has also garnered interest from neighboring agencies.
“We are now starting to provide mutual aid to surrounding agencies and the most
common comment we hear is. ‘Wow, we sure like your Autels.’ We are also trying to
‘guide’ other agencies toward Autel. We love to hear, ‘I wish my 180k drone did what
your Autel does.’”

What’s Next for HVSPD?
HSVPD plans to continue training officers, establishing command and control
infrastructure, and coordinating with other departments.
“We are going to continue with the embedded program. We also are adding trained
Visual Observers. This is being done by offering a class each quarter to train 20-25
VOs. We are also going to add a minimum of six pilots a year…We will also be
training senior pilots to function as NAMACC sUAS ops officers and sUAS traffic
management. We are building out an sUAS support vehicle and hope to be able to
add a dedicated van in the future.”
The budget is an ongoing consideration, though it seems like HSVPD is doing a good
job of proving the program’s worth, and they’re starting to work with other
departments to develop their own drone programs.
“We are also beginning up a statewide sUAS working group that focuses on law
enforcement sUAS use. This will be used to bring state agencies together to discuss,
train, and plan sUAS programs and usage.”

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