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Drones become part of local US responses to COVID-19

Drones (Pete/Flickr)

In a matter of weeks, drones have arrived as a tool for local police departments looking to help control further outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

Thus far, the most common use case appears to be utilizing the machines to reinforce social distancing rules. If a crowd gathers in a public area, an officer will deploy a drone that will, via loudspeakers and a recorded message, urge citizens to disperse. This use case originated in countries like China and Spain.

According to multiple sources within the Elizabeth Police Department in New Jersey, officers see public crowds on a daily basis, whether on street corners, in play areas or in public streets.

“The practical reasoning is that a drone can cover more ground and have a greater vantage point over officers on the ground,” according to an emailed statement from the department. “It also facilitates in assisting patrol in getting to hard to reach areas. Officers can patrol remote areas without leaving their vehicle area. PSAs can be delivered in public places without the danger of officer contact.”

Keturah Greene, public information coordinator for the Savannah Police Department in Georgia, cited similar reasoning in an email to Government Technology.

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“Since utilizing various strategies such as placing a sign board with a social distancing messaging in a popular park which is usually highly populated, utilizing the drones and by educating the community through social media, we have not had any issues recently [with public crowds],” Greene said.

The Elizabeth and Savannah police departments also provided their own responses to concerns about this particular use of drones potentially infringing upon citizens’ rights.

Greene indicated that “neither video footage nor audio is being captured” when Savannah police send drones to inform crowds of social distancing guidelines. Moreover, drones in Savannah aren’t involved in general patrol work.

In its statement, the Elizabeth Police Department said the PSAs aren’t delivered by drones for “surveillance purposes.” The department also referred to legal precedent.

“There’s been plenty of case law on how this does not infringe on citizens’ rights,” the email read. “Florida v. Riley is one of them. Florida v. Riley held that police officials do not need a warrant to observe an individual’s property from public airspace.”

Lieutenant James Munro, who works for Clovis Police Department in California, said his department won’t be using its drones to issue social-distancing messages to crowds. Munro added that Clovis always takes a cautious approach, only using drones when necessary and being mindful of the public’s trust.

“It would make more sense to use a patrol car [to issue PSAs],” Munro said. “You can cover more ground faster. With drones, you have to have line of sight.”

Clovis Police Department has identified other ways for drones to help during the COVID-19 crisis. Munro said when the department gets a call about a dead body in a home, it prefers sending in a drone to do the visual investigation, which can help prevent infections from spreading to officers if the death was indeed caused by the coronavirus.

“We’re trying to use them as much as possible to keep officers out of houses as much as possible,” Munro said. “We can essentially clear an entire house with a drone with no problem, as long as the doors are open and we can make entry.”

Munro added that Clovis Police Department has been thinking about another potential use case. If the department gets a call about a disturbance in a park, the idea would be to send a drone to confirm whether people are there and whether a disturbance is actually occurring before sending officers to respond.

Elizabeth Police Department indicated to Government Technology that it’s looking into using drones to map out future COVID-19 test sites, monitor such sites and assist emergency medical technicians. Green said Savannah Police Department isn’t exploring any other COVID-19 drone use cases at this time.

Two factors may continue to drive the trend of local departments responding to COVID-19 situations with drones. First, on April 14, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an update titled “Drone Use for COVID-19 Response Efforts.” With this update, the organization opened the door for drone transport of goods and “certain medical supplies” as well as expedited approvals for “flights that support emergency activities and appropriate government, health, or community initiatives.”

Second, Chinese drone manufacturer DJI announced its Disaster Relief Program in late March. As part of the emergency program, DJI has sent 100 drones to public safety agencies in almost half of all states.

Munro said he sees drones becoming even more important for police work in the future.

“Drones [are] one piece of technology that, as a police agency, I don’t think we could live without them anymore, to be honest with you,” Munro said.

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© 2020 Government Technology