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Austin Police Department using drones to improve public safety

The department is creating a Robotics Unit, which will launch within the next month.

AUSTIN, Texas — The new eyes of the sky, drones are becoming increasingly popular with people and businesses across the U.S. due to their ability to film or capture pictures from aerial views, at heights people simply cannot achieve alone.

Leaders with Austin Police Department are in the process of creating a Robotics Unit equipped with drones to help improve public safety.

Two FAA drone-certified APD officers on a special assignment basis will manage the Robotics Unit, according to Assistant Chief Scott Perry. 

Over the past year-and-a-half, the unit has purchased the drones with donations from the Greater Austin Crime Commission.

Since the unit is still in its pilot phase, Perry explained the department does not have a budget set for it yet.

APD has already utilized the drones to help with some situations.

"Most of the time, they're being used during public events, parades, large gatherings, sporting events, Austin City Limits (ACL), those type of events. We also use them during special operations with our SWAT team," Perry explained. "Whenever the SWAT team is deployed, we are able to use the drones to help us get a different perspective or more advantageous perspective on what's actually happening during that." 

While APD's main goal of the unit is to ensure public safety at large events and better protect officers in dangerous situations, officers in the unit are also utilizing it to monitor other drone activity in the public. 

In recent years, APD has responded to an increasing number of unauthorized drone usage. Approximately 90% of the time, Perry explained they are dealing with novice drone users who do not know federal regulations and fly drones in unauthorized air space. 

However, they are also receiving reports of unauthorized drones "spying on downtown high rises" and flying over crowded events. This unit is working on a way to mitigate those threats in the future, although Perry said it's not their first priority as they roll out the unit.

"Because it is such new technology, we are really trying to figure out where we fit into the enforcement of those unauthorized drones. Working with our partners, we are just trying to create the best policy in place," Perry explained. 

He did make it clear that the department will not use drones for surveillance, only specific operations. 

KVUE requested data on drone incidents but the department only recently began tracking criminal drone activity in their system last week, so not enough concrete data is available yet.

Despite a shortage of patrol officers that forced the department to suspend other specialized units, Perry explained that leaders made the decision to staff this unit.

"Right now, we have made the decision that the function that they are performing, they can continue to perform that. But as things progress, as the staffing crisis continues, if it comes time that we have to make more difficult decisions, then they have to go back to patrol," he said. 

It's not only Austin police that sees value in using drones for public safety. Austin based-software company DroneSense created drone technology that also helps improve public safety. CEO Chris Eyhorn explained that drones could help departments facing personnel shortages. 

"If you think about large-scale events, you know, you would have to deploy many officers to cover a large area. But with a drone, you can easily fly around and then prioritize the areas where you want to do higher deployment," he said.

As more first responders turn toward drones for assistance, including fire and EMS, Eyhorn explained that also comes with the need for quality management, accountability and transparency. 

"You are checking for any problems. You have checklists. So really the program of record, right? Wherever we have been flying, being able to run those reports, being able to make sure our pilots are staying trained and proficient," Eyhorn explained.

Experts believe the future of drones for public safety has a broader future than just law enforcement. 

Ryan Bracken, the chief product officer with DroneSense, explained drones can be used even in mundane tasks that could put someone at risk. For example, a worker inspecting a radio tower using drone video. 

"They can conduct an inspection of the cables without having somebody climb, spend all day climbing and exposing themselves to risk," Bracken said.

A key concern about drone usage is the public's privacy. 

The APD plans to roll out the Robotics Unit within the next month, however, first leaders want community feedback. 

The department is putting together a community and council education program that will give everyone the opportunity to see what the drones are about, to debunk some of the myths and to explain to the community and city council what their restrictions are as far as the use of drones, including protecting the public's privacy.

"Just because it is a drone being operated, we still have the same responsibility as a police officer to follow the constitution, to follow case law and ensure that people's rights are not violated by the police, and that's what this education program is going to be all about, is getting that information out to the community so they can be comfortable when they see these drones in operation," said Perry. "The department will not use drones for surveillance."

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