An Inside Look at How Police Use Drones: Fort Wayne, Indiana

how police use dronesAs the public safety sector grows, communities and departments want more information on how police use drones to protect and serve their communities.  In this guest post by a founding member of Ft. Wayne’s Air Support Unit: how drones are used, how they train, and how they work with the community.

DRONELIFE is honored to publish this guest post by Officer J. Matthew Rowland of the Fort Wayne, IN Police Department, Air Support Unit.  DRONELIFE neither accepts nor makes payment for guest posts.

The Fort Wayne Police Department Air Support Unit (ASU) started in 2017.  The team was a vision of Lieutenant Jon Bowers all the way back to 2015.  The original focus of the team was to provide overwatch for the emergency services team (EST) operations.  At the time, the team was developed from two hostage negotiators and two licensed pilots on the police department.  As things progressed, it was decided that the group of four would be its own team falling under the Special Operations division of the police department and the official team was compromised of a Lieutenant, a Sergeant, and five patrol officers.

How Police Use Drones in Fort Wayne

Since 2017, the team has grown.  In 2022, the team will be comprised of 2 Sergeants and 8 patrol officers.  The team responded to 217 calls for service in 2021.  This included EST overwatch, fatal crash team reconstruction, outdoor crimes scenes, subjects that were fleeing from the police, missing children and adults, and radio tower inspections.  The team also was apart of 29 demos for the public with community relations in 2021.

how police use drones

In 2021, ASU also hosted a Hobbyist Drone Conference that was sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police Wayne Lodge 14.  This conference brought in 25 local drone hobbyist that were able to spend 8 hours on a Saturday learning about the operations of the FWPD ASU, a 2-hour session with two agents from the Federal Aviation Association (FAA), a session with the new FWPD ASU BRINC indoor drone, and had the opportunity to fly one of the drones in the ASU fleet outdoors.

In 2021, the ASU team also grew with having an officer assigned full time to the unit.  That officer now is able to dedicate their time on the department to helping manage day to day operations of the unit, managing the budget, working on drone maintenance, making contacts with vendors and other agencies, helping with training, and providing a resource for the community to be able to ask questions in regard to drone operations.

Training and Cross-Training with Other Public Safety Departments

ASU trains three days a month.  One day a month is dedicated to indoor drone operations.  During that training day the team is able to spend time training with the EST robot operators working on specific tasks that continue to advance the operations of the team in indoor operations.  The other two days are dedicated to learning new equipment, learning new software, revising policies and procedures and continued workflow efforts.

ASU has a close relationship with our city fire department.  The arson investigators on the fire department assist ASU with various police operations (they are also sworn law enforcement) and train monthly with the team.  Similarity, the arson investigators requested pilots from ASU to assist with large fires, from assisting with finding hot spots in the fires to mapping the scene after the fire is under control.

One of the things that sets Fort Wayne, Indiana aside from other cities is the City of Fort Wayne Drone Ordinance.  The original ordinance created in 2018 was revised in 2021 to include not just the downtown aerial district, but the airports and hospitals with helipads in the city, and it also includes the military areas within the city limits.  This ordinance is not an approval or denial type of regulation, but an informational ordinance, asking for the drone pilot to submit a form that is passed along to the drone team so that drone operations are documented and helping to keep everyone safe.

In 2018, the Air Support Unit provided overwatch for the sitting President during a mid-term campaign stop in Fort Wayne.  The secret service advised our team that they believed that we were the first local police drone team that had ever provided overwatch with drones for a sitting President.  It was one of the first opportunities to apply for and be approved for a waiver for the Presidential TFR.

Expanding the Program: Advance Visual Observer, Drone as First Responder

Since 2018, the Air Support Unit has trained our visual observers in house with a 4-hour training class.  While the entire department hasn’t been trained yet, the negotiators, our fatal crash team members, and our crime scene detectives have been trained.  This allows us to have extra eyes during our missions.  These specially trained officers are a critical asset to the unit on the missions such as fatal crash reconstruction, outdoor crime scene, and search and rescue.

In 2021, that program was expanded into an Advance Visual Observer program.  These officers all have taken and passed their FAA part 107 test.  They then participated in an 8-hour in house training class learning more in-depth about the Air Support Unit as well as the equipment and drones that are used by the team.  These officers are then utilized when they are on duty to assist with team members for everything from visual observing, to assisting with flight operations as man power is needed.

In 2022, the Air Support Unit will be expanding to include a Drone First Responder (DFR) program.  This program, based on the Chula Vista, CA model, will stage a drone in strategic operating locations in the city.  The drone will respond to higher priority runs for service.  The drone will then arrive on the scene and provide live real time video for officers that are responding to the call for service.  This proven model has shown that the drones can arrive in half the amount of time as patrol officers giving them a better look at the scene for the safety and security of all.

In closing, the Fort Wayne Police Department Air Support unit has been blessed with forward thinking command and officers in its 5-year existence.  We look forward to the future and where the next 5 years and beyond will take us.

You can follow the Fort Wayne Police Department Air Support Unit on Instagram @FWPDASU

Read more about Drones as First Responder, BRINC Swat Team drones, and drones for firefighting.

Officer J. “Matt” Rowland is a 17 year veteran of the Fort Wayne Police Department located in Fort Wayne, IN. He was a founding member of the Fort Wayne Police Department Air Support Unit (ASU) in 2017. He has spent 15 years in the Operations division and served 6 years during that time as a hostage negotiator. He is a certified instructor both in the classroom and emergency vehicle driving. He’s held a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Pilot certificate since 2017 and has several hundred flight hours on multiple drone platforms. He is a 2000 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Communications with a emphasis in TV production. Officer Rowland is currently assigned to a full time position on the Fort Wayne Police department with the Air Support Unit.