Over the last few years, police departments throughout the United States of America have been embracing drone technology. There are close to 400 police departments with established and growing drone programs. The drones are being used to monitor traffic, crime scene analysis, search and rescue, tracking active suspects, crowd monitoring, and more. Drones are helping officers do their jobs with greater ease and accuracy, while limiting the risks officers put upon themselves daily. Any police force looking to develop a drone program has to first get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and go through rigorous training. Recently the FAA has looked into starting a new program testing the limits of drones for police use, and Louisville, Ky. is vying to become the program’s first test subject.
Founded in 1778, Louisville is now the largest city in Kentucky, home to over 600,000 people. Because of it’s large size, the city also has the highest crime rate throughout the relativity safe state of Kentucky. Louisville’s crime rate is estimated at 647 incidents per every 100,000 people. One of the city’s biggest concerns has been gun violence. The Louisville Metro Police Department saw a steady increase in gun related crime, so in 2017 they decided to think outside of the box for a solution. They began to install ShotSpotter systems around the city and immediately saw a decline in gun crime.
As explained on their website, ShotSpotter is “An advanced system of sensors, algorithms and artificial intelligence to detect, locate and alert police to gunfire.” Far too many gun incidents go unreported or unsolved due to the extreme obstacles involved in solving these cases. In many scenarios, unless there is a willing witness to the crime, little information is available to police officers. ShotSpotter is a series of devices spread through a city that picks up the sound of a gun shot. Once the sound is identified as a gun shot the system triangulates where the sound came from to alert an officer of an incident and direct them to the location of the shot. Not only does the ShotSpotter system help police offices to solve gun crimes, but it has proven to be a deterrent as well.
However, ShotSpotter is not a perfect system, and it relies heavily on an officer being able to report to the scene of a crime swiftly after receiving notification. Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer tasked the city’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation to find a way to further improve this system to keep citizens safe. Chris Seidt, now Louisville’s Director of Information Technology, was previously a member of the team appointed by the mayor to tackle gun violence. After installing the ShotSpotter system he recalls that “In its first six months of existence, we had 800 activations of the system. In the 400 square miles of Jefferson County, that’s a bit of a problem.” Of these occurrences, only 50% of them ended in an arrest, well below the national average. The system was working, officers were receiving notifications that a gun had been shot, but they simply couldn’t get to the scene within a time frame that would lead to success.
Thinking outside of the box yet again, Seidt and his team thought of using drones to respond to an alert from the ShotSpotter. “We thought, ‘What’s the likelihood of getting a better clearance rate if we get to the site of a gunshot incident quickly?’” Seidt said. On average, it can take a police officer anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes to respond to a gun shot, depending on their original location. A drone does not have to worry about traffic, pedestrians, or road obstacles as it travels through the air. A drone can respond to the location of a gun shot within a matter of minutes.
The way the system would work is that the city would first have to decide on a key area of the city to test a pilot program. They would look for an area that is ideally set up for a drone to fly autonomously, meaning that there would be no aerial obstructions for a drone to encounter. The next step would be to set up geofencing parameters to control the flight paths of the drone. The department would also have to purchase a drone that has autonomous flight capabilities, and a camera with thermal recording for nighttime missions. The drone would be programed to respond to the ShotSpotter and fly on it’s own to the tagged location. Once there, the drone will begin to record the scene for evidence, but will not attempt to pursue a suspect. At this point a manually operated drone could be deployed to track down a suspect.
For now, the city is waiting on approval from the FAA to begin designing the pilot program that would include autonomous drone flight over people, at night, and beyond visual line of sight. “Our goal is to test the theory and see if this is an effective use case of the technology,” Seidt said. “We’re not looking to go immediately into production and deploy hundreds of drones across the community.” The fact is, a drone can get to a crime scene faster than a police officer. Once there, the drone’s camera can provide the responding officers with critical information. The camera can help officers verify if the sound picked up by the ShotSpotter was in fact from a gun and not just a car backfiring. The camera can give the responding officer a birds eye view of the scene, alerting them to any lingering dangers they may be coming in on. As stated on the Louisville Metro Police Department’s website, “It is the mission of the Louisville Metro Police Department to deliver professional, effective services, fairly and ethically, at all times, to all people, in order to prevent crime, control crime, and enhance the overall quality of life for citizens and visitors.” If granted approval from the FAA, this new autonomous drone program could very likely be the next step in accomplishing the department’s mission.
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