While drones have been deployed in many military actions, domestic drone deployment in the United States faces opposition on several fronts. Many in the public view drones as overly invasive or machines of war, as demonstrated by the legislative acts of many states, capped off by Seattle’s recent decision to scrap the police department’s drone program.

But hobbyists and many in the public safety community argue that privacy concerns over drones may be keeping the public from seeing the true potential the unmanned aircraft could offer, especially in emergency management and response.

Law enforcement could use drones to gain better situational awareness and keep officers and civilians safe during dangerous operations like drug busts or hostage situations. Firefighters could use them to scout wildfires, or identify hidden hot spots in structure fires. Rescue teams could save trapped or missing people in areas that helicopters can’t reach. In the right hands, drones could make the public safer.

For hobbyists, there are virtually no obstacles to flying a small, unmanned aircraft. A beginner drone costs a few hundred dollars, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows toy drones to go essentially unregulated. But if a drone is used as a tool, whether for fire scouting or to bring water to a stranded hiker, then the drone is no longer a toy and requires a certificate of authorization (COA). There’s a lot of paperwork and months of waiting in store for any public safety agency seeking to use a drone legally. But this will soon change, according to Don Shinnamon, a former police chief who sat on the first rule-making committee for drones.

“As a pilot of manned aircraft,” Shinnamon said, “I don’t necessarily want to be dodging a hundred unmanned aircraft that are flying around. So I support the notion that the integration of unmanned aircraft has to go slowly so we can guarantee the safety of the national airspace.” While Shinnamon supports conservative drone legislation for safety purposes, he is also a major proponent of increased domestic drone use. He drafted a provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 that will make it simpler for public safety agencies to get authorized.

With fewer regulations keeping law enforcement agencies from using drones, Shinnamon expects the technology will become a more viable option, especially given their potential to enhance public safety. “We are a tradition-bound profession,” Shinnamon said, referring to those in law enforcement who don’t support the use of drones, “but the economy has forced us to look for better ways to provide the same levels of service or more economical ways of providing a higher level of service. The technology has proven it can save the lives of troops on the ground in combat zones. And that same technology can provide a much higher level of safety for police officers and firefighters doing dangerous things here in our country.” But even those public safety leaders interested in reaping the benefits of drones don’t necessarily have the knowledge, funding or time to research the technology. That’s where hobbyists come in.

If a public safety agency has between $40,000 and $100,000 to spend on drone technology, they can get a turn-key system that works well, according to Oregon-based hobbyists Patrick Sherman and Brian Zvaigzne. Calling themselves the Roswell Flight Test Crew, the two are showing agencies in their region what drones can accomplish at a modest cost.

The team has worked with fire and rescue agencies in Portland, Ore.; Tualatin Valley, Ore.; Clackamas, Ore.; and Longview, Wash. Sherman reports that their level of involvement has ranged from preliminary talks to field demonstrations, and they’ve encountered wide variations in officials’ openness to the potential of drones.

“We've had some firefighters who've been just enthralled with the idea of this technology,” he explained, but others staunchly defend their agency’s current operations, questioning what value the unmanned craft would bring.  “I’m not saying there's anything wrong with the way they do things. I think this can be an enhancement,” Sherman said.

According to Sherman, drones made by hobbyists like the Roswell Flight Test Crew work as well as the big-name turn-key drone systems sold by commercial vendors, but cost about 95 percent less. But drones require maintenance, system integration and someone has to know how to fly them.

Just as the Civil Air Patrol employs volunteer pilots to support operations of the U.S. Air Force, there are drone hobbyists around the country who might consider joining an unmanned civil air patrol, he suggests. “There's a long tradition of amateur radio operators helping out in emergencies,” Sherman said, adding that until drone technology becomes more broadly used, drone hobbyists, similarly, could fill this vital role.

Commercial drones on the market today are much easier to control than those available just a few years ago. If a drone pilot takes his hands off the controls, GPS and altitude positioning allow the aircraft to simply hover in place until the pilot is ready to continue. This technological progress is thanks to engineers and researchers like Mary “Missy” Cummings, an associate professor at MIT who focuses much of her research on drone control architectures.

According to Cummings, a major reason drones have gotten cheaper in the last few years is that manufacturers have cut corners on things like user interface. “Unfortunately the big barrier to UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] being successful in the commercial marketplace is that they’re going to have to be as safe as commercial aircraft,” she said. “Companies are going to have to start taking safety, efficiency, well designed interfaces, the reduction of human error, they’re going to have to start taking that stuff seriously.”

Cummings said although she liked the idea of an unmanned civil air patrol, she noted that there are several major barriers to implementation, including collision avoidance, command and control support and coordination.

Consider, she said, a major earthquake in California. “Like in a lot of cases where you have a community grass-roots effort, you need somebody who can actually manage this and now we’re not talking about just managing people and rescuers, we’re managing all the data that’s going out to support rescuers.” So while it’s a good idea, she said, the program would need structure to make it work.

Regardless of whether a grass-roots effort can impact public safety in an emergency, drones can augment operations in ways that no other technology can, Cummings said. “These automated systems can exceed human abilities and take over in the times when we can’t do something because of our physical limitations, and I think that is what we’re going to start seeing in the future,” she said. “You don’t want to send a manned helicopter into a burning area to pick up, let’s say, some firefighters that were pinned in by some out of control fire. You wouldn’t want to risk a human life to do that, but you would easily send in a helicopter to do that.”

Cummings thinks that it is just these kinds of emergency response scenarios that might help change public perceptions about drone use. “We’re going to have the next Hurricane Katrina, the next Hurricane Sandy,” she explained. “We’re going to start seeing unmanned vehicles bringing in badly needed supplies and … I think as soon as we do that, it’s going to be amazing the change we see in people. People just see UAVs as bad. I think there’s a change coming.”

Photo from Shutterstock

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com