Drones are increasingly useful for public safety agencies, saving both time and money as we keep our communities safe. Unfortunately, some policymakers have called to restrict the purchase and use of certain foreign-made drones or those that contain certain foreign-made components, which could ground existing drone programs at police and fire departments across the country. Congress recently rejected this approach, and others considering similar bans should follow suit to allow public safety officials to continue taking advantage of this beneficial technology.
Drones have had a tremendous impact on how my colleagues and I at the Daytona Beach Police Department keep people safe. Since we launched our program in 2017, we have used drones for everything from finding missing persons such as children or Alzheimer’s patients, tracking down suspects after felony crimes, and providing crowd estimates and critical support during major events such as the Daytona 500. We also use drones collaboratively with other public safety agencies, such as helping identify hotspots for our local fire department during a recent fire at a strip mall. Our drones are also more than just a camera in the sky; using a drop hook, we even have the ability to deliver items such as life preservers during maritime rescues.
Our story is not unique. According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, nearly 1,600 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency services across the United States rely on drones to improve public safety. A recent survey also found that 90 percent of these agencies rely on grants or donations to support their drone programs. Unfortunately, some policymakers and federal agencies have attempted to prohibit state and local public safety agencies from using federal funds such as grants to purchase or use certain foreign-made drones. This would have an immediate direct impact on our program and many other public safety agencies, forcing us to ground our drones and take away a key tool we use to keep our community safe.
When it comes to cybersecurity, we handle sensitive data on a day-to-day basis and understand the appropriate procedures that need to be in place, which extends to our use of drones. Adherence to this framework gives us confidence that we control where the data goes, rather than having to look at the bottom of a drone to see where it is made.
Our concerns with these drone bans are not just hypothetical. The Department of the Interior enacted a similar ban last year, preventing it from carrying out a planned purchase of new drones to help its wildland firefighting efforts. This prevented the Department from carrying out planned, controlled burns and made it costlier, riskier and more dangerous to fight wildfires. If a similar ban were to apply to all agencies receiving federal money, it would have a catastrophic trickle-down effect on public safety.
It may seem like a simple fix to have public safety agencies purchase new drones not covered by the bans, but the reality is much more complicated. Some drones on the market can cost three to five times as much as the drones we are currently using. Many agencies simply don’t have the money to buy and maintain these more expensive drones, let alone retrain our personnel on how to use them. Even if we did purchase different drones, the capabilities that our current drones offer are unmatched by most other platforms on the market today.
The alternative – to abandon our drone programs altogether – would leave a public safety void in our community. We would lose precious time when looking for a lost child or a fleeing suspect. We would be forced to use slower methods to map traffic collision scenes, snarling traffic for longer periods of time. Put simply, we would be unable to operate at our full potential.
Luckily, Congress heard our concerns and decided not to proceed with a ban as part of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act it recently passed. This decision will let us continue flying drones that have been proven time and again to be safe and secure for law enforcement operations. In Florida, it also enables a newly formed working group to continue sharing best practices and developing standard procedures for law enforcement use of drones. Allowing us to continue to collaborate and innovate will pay dividends for years to come.
Congress made the right move by rejecting short-sighted and sweeping bans that would leave public safety agencies grounded. Now, federal agencies and other policymakers considering similar bans should do the same. By doing so, they will allow us to continue using the life-saving tools that we have come to rely on to keep our communities safe.
Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer is the Unmanned Aviation Systems Unit Supervisor for the Daytona Beach Police Department.