Mexican city about two hours south of Tijuana, a new crime fighter has taken to the skies. It’s not a bird, or a plane, or Superman. It’s a drone. And over a few months on patrol, it’s had quite the impact. The city’s police department claims the solitary DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter led to more than 500 arrests and a 10 percent drop in overall crime rates, with a 30 percent drop in home robberies.
It’s the latest example of drones slowly finding their place in civilian life, like soldiers returning from war, seeking to apply their skills to life in a country not entirely comfortable with what they were up to overseas. Unmanned aerial vehicles may have gotten their start with the military, flying recon missions in Vietnam and dropping bombs over Afghanistan. Their use is still causing concern and debate: Earlier this month, Google pledged not to renew a Department of Defense contract for Project Maven, where it was developing AI to interpret drone surveillance video, when 4,500 employees signed a petition against it.
But in Ensenada, the police present their use of the drone as an unmitigated success. “It’s helped with reducing response times and also catching people when they do something illegal,” says Jesus Ramos Avendaño, CTO of the Ensenada police force.
Over four months, Avendaño’s department flew an average of 25 missions a day (more than 1,600 total), deciding where to fly based on 911 call volumes. Operating from a local control room, the police used software developed by California-based Cape, which automates much of the flying process, including takeoffs and landings. Any authorized officer can grab a feed of the video streaming off the drone, from their desk or while out in the field.
Cape CEO Chris Rittler says fewer than a dozen quadcopter-style drones could give a city like Ensenada, population 522,000, complete coverage. “The most common use case is in response to an emergency call, when the drone can be redirected from a flight it’s already on,” he says. The aircraft can reach a location before officers get there by road and give them eyes on what’s going on.
That sort of rapid response is a big deal in police work. “Thieves have a clock in their head, from when they break a window to when the police arrive,” Rittler says. “What the drone has done is dramatically decrease that time window.”
Although drones aren’t regularly used for police surveillance in the US on the scale of Ensenada yet, over the past few years, they have proven their usefulness in plenty of ways. Drone builder DJI says that on one day in May, public safety drones saved four lives: UK police found a missing person, semiconscious and just a few feet from a steep cliff, using a drone with a thermal imaging camera. A fire department in Indiana dropped a life vest to a drowning criminal suspect, who had fled into a pond. And public safety officials in Central Texas dropped life vests to a mother and her 15-year-old daughter, who got caught in a rising river. In the past year, drones have helped scout areas of Houston flooded by Hurricane Harvey and restrung electrical cables in Puerto Rico downed by Hurricane Maria.
To ease drones into America’s tightly controlled, crowded airspace, the FAA has greenlit 10 pilot projects around the country, all with an emphasis on do-goodery and cooperation between the public and private sectors. Cape is among those taking part, working with the city of San Diego and a local police department on an emergency response project. The details are still in flux, but police say they plan to use drones to do things like assess the extent of a freeway pileup, not surveil suspected criminals.
That hesitation to set drones after bad guys will be typical of new projects in America. “What you see is most government offices in the US taking a crawl, walk, run, approach,” says Gregory McNeal, who teaches law and public policy at Pepperdine University in California. He also cofounded drone software company AirMap, which is participating in the San Diego trial. Bringing drones to the domestic theater means proving their usefulness step by step. “I personally believe drones are going to provide enormous value,” he says. “But the only way we’ll realize that is putting in regulatory structure that doesn’t ignore people’s concerns.”
Along with public safety and being a nuisance, those concerns include protecting privacy. Compared to obvious helicopters and fixed-in-place CCTV cameras, drones are a potent tool for surveillance. They can go almost anywhere—up to windows, over fences, under tree canopies. Drone operators have a potential model in body cameras worn by cops who enter private property and work in sensitive situations. Police forces using the tech have created policies that attempt to balance privacy and public accountability.
Failing to make the people using these little aircraft accountable could spoil the potential to do a lot of good, like the work claimed by the Ensenada police. But if a single quadcopter can really lower crime rates by 10 percent, it’s worth making sure everyone’s happy to see one appear minutes after they dial 911. Except, of course, the crooks.
— With assistance by Jack Stewart