Webinar presenter Don Redmond answered a number of your questions after his presentation, Launching Your Agency’s Drone Program: From Planning to Takeoff. Here are just a few of his responses.
Audience Question: Do you have night operations?
Don Redmond: We do not. We can. So, there are no limitations for us flying at night. It’s really, it’s funding our UAS program is budgeted for $1.5 million. And that’s for seven-day operations, 10 hours a day. And the majority of that is to the pilots in command up on the rooftops because we have to put a person on the rooftop of each one. My goal and probably within this year is to move into about a 20-hour a day operation and into night.
Audience Question: How many drones does your agency have?
Don Redmond: We have a lot of drones. For our DFR program, we have seven Matrice 300 that are specific to our DFR program. And then we have probably about another 25 drones that we own. But in reality, probably about 5 or six of them are the ones that we utilize the most. It’s kind of like your iPhone when the first iPhone came out, everybody bought the iPhone, and then the next year that iPhone 2 came out and so you buy all the iPhone 2 because each year the drones are getting significantly better, lighter, better cameras, the batteries are better so that’s kind of where we’re at. We keep buying about every year we’ll buy some new drones.
Audience Question: What’s the lens focal length on the drone?
Don Redmond: For the DFR, it’s about a 30 optical zoom. So, I’d never measured this, but from our city, we can zoom in the camera across the bay into Coronado which is the city across. And get a pretty clear view. From the optics, we can read license plates. We can obviously read see what people are holding in their hands. And what I suggest, when you look at your drone, the camera is just equally as important as the drone and the drone can be flying for an hour and have all of these great abilities. But if it has a terrible camera, it’s not going to do you any good.
Audience Question: What software do you use for tracking and posting drone flights?
Don Redmond: We fly our Drone as First Responder through Motorola CAPE solutions, so that startup company CAPE was acquired by Motorola. And Motorola now has that software, which allows us to teleoperate, live-stream, and has the geofencing. Within our Motorola software, we have partnered with Air Data. And so that is integrated through Air Data that tracks all of our flights, the battery life, equipment life, all of our drone pilots, how many hours they’ve gone. And then we do a connection. Basically, we update that information into our department website.
Audience Question: How does your agency manage the staff and training needs for the FAA training requirements for the Certified Observer role?
Don Redmond: We were under a COA. So, we self-certify all of them. But we do, for our visual observer, we do twice a year, so every six months, it’s at our shift change for patrol. And we do about a 15-minute visual observer training for all of our officers. That’s documented who attended the PowerPoint and the information that they receive. So, we’ve been doing this for 2.5 years. So, our department is really well versed in the program, but we do the training twice a year.
Host: And it just takes 15 minutes to do the training?
Don Redmond: Yeah. A visual observer is just that you’re maintaining airspace awareness, while the pilot can focus on flying the drone.
Audience Question: How did you build the business case to buy and start your drone program? And what should we be planning for?
Don Redmond: That’s a great question. So, as I said before, we really did crawl, walk, run. We were very fortunate in that when we started the program, we were working with CAPE technology. So, the software, we work in partnership, so there wasn’t really a funding issue there. We already owned our officers. Obviously, we didn’t have to go out and buy officers. We had to have the certification for Part 107, and then what we’re really fortunate is the drones themselves, we have a pretty good police foundation that purchased most of our drones for us in the beginning and throughout our program. Each drone for the Matrice 300 is about $35,000, and we have seven of those. I really encourage you is to partner with your fire department and police departments, to work together for the funding source, and I’m talking about DFR, it’s a mutual resource. And even if it’s Part 107 there can be a case for using drones for both fire and police.
Audience Question: So, piggybacking on that. Can you walk us through the timeline? How long did it really take to build your program?
Don Redmond: We’re still building. So, we started, really, within six months. we went from one nautical mile to three nautical miles for our BVLOS which were one of the first in the country. And then about nine months, we added a second location. And then we went to seven-day-a-week coverage. During that time, we also got a 1:2 waiver, so that we can launch a second drone to get overhead when a first drone battery is going down. And we return to home. We already have a second drone over there, so, we never lose the video of that incident. And then, about three months ago, we got approval for citywide coverage. And then, the next part of what we’re doing is we want to expand into night operations. And then our long-term goal is to remove the pilot in command off the rooftop and to be able to have a really self-automated drone that’s housed in an area on different road rooftops that has the sense and avoid technology that we can safely launch drones from teleoperation.
Audience Question: How many officers have you licensed as pilots for your agency, and what would be your recommendation for a good proportion or ratio for other agencies to consider?
Don Redmond: That’s a great question, and it’s very hard to answer. It just really depends on how you’re going to use your drones. If you’re just going to use them for mapping and diagramming crime scenes, then maybe you only need 2 or 3 officers for it. If you’re going to use a more robust program where you have multiple officers. Maybe one officer per shift has the ability to launch a drone from the trunk, then look at each shift and how many officers, how many shifts you have, and do that. With each officer you have, there is a cost for training, for licensing, and then the upkeep on the drones that they’re checking out.
Audience Question: What do you know now that you wish you had known when you first started the program?
Don Redmond: Never stop looking at privacy concerns. We haven’t, but we’re still adjusting how we’re doing it, to ensure that the community is comfortable in the way that we’re flying. And then a perfect example is, just last week, I asked Motorola Solutions to when we hit the Return to Home button on our drones for the Drone as First Responder, that the camera automatically goes into the horizontal position. So, it’s not inadvertently looking at the ground and potentially people’s backyards and stuff that was a concern. We’re always looking at different things. Privacy. Privacy, privacy is always in the back of our minds to make sure that we don’t ruin the community’s trust.