Police drones are starting to think for themselves

CHULA VISTA, California. – When Chula Vista police receive 911 calls, they can send a flying drone with the press of a button.

On a recent afternoon, from a launchpad on the roof of the Chula Vista Police Department, he sent a drone across the city to a crowded parking lot, where a young man with the drug paraphernalia on his lap was on the front seat of a stolen car sleeping. .

When the man left the car, a nearby police car faced trouble, carrying a gun and a bag of heroin, as it splashed across the street and hid behind a wall. But as he threw the gun into a dumper and hid a bag of heroin, the drone hovered over him, catching everything on camera. When he slipped through the back door of a strip mall, exited the front door and ran down the sidewalk, he grabbed him as well.

While watching the live video feed, an officer at the headquarters gave details of the police at the scene, who soon caught the man and took him into custody. Later, he retrieved the gun and heroin. And after another press of the button, the drone returned to the roof, on its own.

Each day, Chulla Vista Police responds to 15 emergency calls with drones, launching more than 4,100 flights since the program began two years ago. Chula Vista, a Southern California city with a population of 270,000, is the first country in the country to adopt such a program, called Drone First Responder.

Over the past several months, three other cities – two in California and one in Georgia – have followed suit. From police agencies airy Service New York Have used drones for years, but are mostly flown in a simple, manual way. Officers take a drone in a car trunk on patrol or take it to the crime scene before launching into a park or flying inside a building.

But the latest drone technology – mirroring technology that powers self-driving cars – has the power to replace everyday policing, such that it can replace package delivery, building inspections and military reconnaissance. Instead of spending millions of dollars on large helicopters and pilots, even small police forces can operate small autonomous drones for a relative gall.

However, newfound automation raises concerns about civil liberties, particularly drones gaining the power to automatically track vehicles and people. As police use more drones, they can collect and store more videos of life in the city, removing any expectation of privacy once they leave home.

“Communities should ask tough questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection, ”said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology. “Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also censors that can generate crime. “

With the epidemic still worsening, drones are a way of policing at some distance, said Rahul Sidhu, an officer at Redondo Beach near Los Angeles, who began a program similar to the one in Chula Vista just after the virus arrived in the United States Does.

“We’re just trying to limit our exposure to other people,” he said. “Sometimes, you can send a drone without sending it to an officer.”

But down the road, he said, as these smaller unmanned helicopters become cheaper and more powerful, they will provide more efficient ways to improve urban areas. He can assist police departments at one time Number of recruits continues across the country And many voices Calling for funding cuts after months of protests against police violence.

In Chula Vista, drones are already an integral part of the police’s mode of emergency. After an emergency call arrives, the officers give the drone a spot, and it automatically flies to that point – before returning on its own.

The department’s drones can cover about one-third of the city from two launch sites, accounting for about 70 percent of all emergency calls. After asking the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the third launch site, local police hoped to cover the entire city, approximately 52 square miles between San Diego and the Mexican border.

Government regulations require that a certified pilot remain on the roof of the police department, overseeing the launch and, together with a police officer at a command station inside the building, handle most of the flight once the drone reaches its destination is.

FAA regulations prohibit drones from drifting beyond their operators’ vision for the purpose of protecting commercial aircraft and flights of other aircraft. But Chula Vista received an exemption from the FAA, so pilots and officers can fly the drone three miles from its launch site.

Each drone – which includes long-range cameras, other sensors and software – costs the department approximately $ 35,000. But the overriding cost of the program lies in the many authorities required to operate the drone.

In another recent afternoon, when Chulla Vista police were alerted that a car overturned in an empty riverbed, they sent a new type of drone into the ravine. Created by Silicon Valley company Skydio, it can avoid obstacles on its own thanks to many similar technologies Used by self-driving cars.

“A simple drone would have crashed by now,” Sergeant. James Horst said when he watched the drone swoop in and watch a video on the bank of the river and inspect the inside quarters of the car.

Later, in the courtyard outside the police department, he showed how, with another press of a button, he could instruct an automatic drone to drive a particular person or vehicle on its own. SkyDayo has long offered a consumer drone that can chase you from one place to another, even you weaving between obstacles like trees in a forest. Now the company, which recently hired Fritz Reber, former head of the Chula Vista police drone program, is selling it to police and other businesses.

Shield AI, a start-up in San Diego that has worked with police departments, has developed a drone that can fly in a building and without a pilot, as well as the length and breadth of the campus, even in the dark. Can inspect. In broad daylight. Others, including a Chinese company SkyDayo and DJI, which make drones launched from the roof of the Chula Vista Police Department, are building similar technology.

The Chula Vista Department treats the drone video as much as it does video from police body cams, storing the footage as evidence and publicly releasing it only with approval, Capt. Don Redmond said. The department does not use drones for regular patrols.

For privacy advocates like Mr. Stanley of ACLU, the concern is that increasingly powerful technology will be used to target parts of the community – or strictly enforce laws that move with social norms Are out of

“It could allow law enforcement to enforce any area of ​​law against anyone,” Mr. Stanley said.

For example, drones can easily be used to identify people and restrict activity during protests of people who have been very prevalent across the country in recent months. Capt Redmond said the Chula Vista Department did not deploy drones at the Black Lives Matter protest because its policies forbade it.

Chula Vista police do not require the approval of city officials to expand drone use, but, according to Captain Redmond, they have publicly informed the community about the program’s continued progress.

Drones as First Responder programs in locations such as Redondo Beach and Clovis, California, are searching for weavers that will allow them to fly beyond operators’ sight.

In Clovis, near the middle of the state, the police department has found that its drones overheat at the height of summer. “We were blowing them up four days a week, until it got very hot,” said Lt. James Munro. “Then we had to field them.”

But he feels that these and other technical hurdles will be overcome soon. “Drones are like iPhones,” he said. “As soon as you get one, a new one comes with a new technology.”

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