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This Drone Company Wants to Put Police Helicopters Out of Work

Based in Santa Clara, Calif., Impossible Aerospace is bringing a drone response system to the market later this year, but such innovation won't come without economic risk and lessons to be learned.

Impossible Aerospace Screenshot - Via YouTube
A look at the control display from a US-1 drone during a mock search and rescue mission.
Courtesy Impossible Aerospace via YouTube
Later this year, public safety entities will have the opportunity to send roof-stationed drones to the scenes of 911 calls with a product called Impossible Air Support.

The product, which is developed by California-based company Impossible Aerospace, is a turnkey solution that will include aircraft, a command center, FAA compliance paperwork, training, software and hardware updates and more, as reported by Yahoo.

Impossible Aerospace CEO Spencer Gore, a former battery engineer for Tesla, said the technology package for more advanced drone missions will hit during the third quarter of 2020. The company has the hardware and software done, but will be testing and retesting every part of the system. Gore told Government Technology that he believes the technology has the potential to “make helicopters obsolete.”

“Our goal was to build an aircraft that can take off from the roof of a police department, fly out to an incident a mile away, and then hover above it for an hour before returning,” Gore said. “That was the goal. The aircraft that we built has a 78-minute flight time, and it can do exactly that. That is many times higher than other commercially available systems.”

Currently, Chinese company DJI is the world’s leader in drone manufacturing. However, even though DJI can claim as much as 70 percent of the global market, a recent report from TechCrunch indicates that the Trump administration is drafting an executive order to halt federal use of foreign-made drones because of security concerns. 

Gore himself is critical of DJI drones for public safety purposes.

“What we’ve found is that they make good drones if what you’re looking for is a toy, but law enforcement was asking for hardware that is, one, higher performance, meaning longer flight time and better cameras, and two, sourced from America,” Gore said. “And so we build aircraft that are much higher performance than what you’re able to find elsewhere, and we also build them in a factory here and design them here, too.”

But DJI spokesperson Michael Oldenburg, in a statement addressing Trump's potential Chinese drone ban, warned against judging drones by their country of origin.

"While we haven’t seen the document [executive order], this proposal is another attack on drone technology based on its country of origin, which recent reporting has shown has been criticized within federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service and even the White House Office of Management and Budget," Oldenburg told TechCrunch. “When communicating among themselves, these agencies’ officials have explained how such an approach damages American interests and does not solve any cybersecurity issues, and have acknowledged that DJI’s products have been validated as secure for use in government operations."

Christopher Todd, executive director of the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), has seen Impossible Aerospace’s unique drone, the US-1, in action. The Impossible Air Support package follows a model supported by AIRT research showing that a “wide majority of public safety professionals would prefer to basically lease equipment rather than own the equipment because the technology cycle is evolving so fast.”

Todd is excited to see how Impossible Air Support does in the market, but he pointed out that purchasing the solution comes with risk given Impossible Aerospace’s startup status.

“How much funding do they have? How much runway do they have? How long are they going to be around? That’s where the risk factor is,” Todd said. “Because a public agency could invest in this program, but then if a company’s not around that long, or for whatever reason they don’t get another round of funding, then they’re kind of stuck with nothing.”

Todd explained that, in theory, drones can respond to 911 calls. He cited the example of Chula Vista Police Department, which has developed a program where drones can arrive to a 911 scene within three minutes. But Todd emphasized that it took Chula Vista two years to perfect its program.

“The notion of placing drones on tall buildings sounds really sexy, seems like a good idea, but in theory, you wonder, are there radio and communications equipment on top of that building?” Todd said. “Is that going to interfere with the drone signal? Is that going to interfere with the ground station? It’s not an easy proposition. It takes a little bit of legwork to figure this stuff out.”

Gore would agree with the idea that every local area has its own context to deal with. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution in the drone industry.

“We really have to sell an aviation program that is designed for the requirements of the agency, for their realistic staffing levels, and for their geography,” Gore said. 

One element that concerns agencies is Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations on drones. For instance, a department can’t fly a drone beyond visual line of sight without an FAA waiver. In the official video for Impossible Air Support, the company says, “[W]e take care of the FAA.”

“Every time we work with an agency, we first assess the capabilities that they’re looking to have and then we look at the airspace that they’re situated in,” Gore said. “And where a beyond visual line of sight waiver is both possible and helpful to the agency, then certainly, we can help them go get it.”

From a design perspective, Impossible Aerospace’s US-1 aircraft stands apart from other drones both because of its greater size and its very structure, which is made up of dozens of batteries. The drone, which is already being used by some California agencies, will have sirens, spotlights and loud speakers, allowing the machine to send messages to either victims or suspects.

Todd said the US-1’s relatively large size and battery-heavy design means that the company will have to do its due diligence to make the system ready for primetime.

“The last thing you want that [aircraft] doing is coming out of the sky and landing on a car or house or, God forbid, a person,” Todd said. “They’re going to need to prove air worthiness and safety to be able to conduct those types of advanced operations with this aircraft.”

He added that agencies need to be aware that the US-1 would require charging once it’s low on power because of its battery structure. DJI drones, in contrast, have swappable batteries.

Gore understands the importance of reducing the probability of a drone failing in flight. With aircraft, it’s a question of when, not if, an accident will occur.

“It is statistically inevitable that there will be crashes, but our job is to make sure that we delay that day for as long as possible, and we are holding ourselves to the level of wanting this to be safer than a helicopter,” Gore said.

Impossible Aerospace hasn’t received attention from advocacy groups yet. Gore said a drone in this case isn’t a surveillance tool because it’s only flown during emergencies or when someone’s life is in danger. The imagery a drone can capture at a 911 scene is a benefit to society, Gore argued.

“Every time the aircraft is deployed, you get, taken from the air, a high-fidelity video of the scene exactly as it unfolds,” Gore said. “It’s a source of ground truth. It’s like a new body camera if you will … And really, it’s not a tool that is in any way useful for some kind of Orwellian mass surveillance. People need to be worried about their smartphones, not about a quadcopter. That’s where the data sits.”

The American Civil Liberties Union could not be reached for comment on the program.

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.