Dallas PD Drone Unit: After Years of Research, Department Takes Flight
Dallas PD drone unit launches, following years of study
By Jim Magill
After more than a half dozen years of study and pilot program testing, the police department in Dallas, Texas earlier this year officially launched its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program.
The UAS squad will operate as part of Dallas PD’s Air Support Unit that supports patrol divisions and other investigative teams, Mike Igo, deputy chief of the department’s tactical operations division, said in a blog post announcing the unit’s formation.
The department will deploy 18 DJI drones, comprising various models, with each model designated for a specific set of tasks. Drones will be used in a number of operations, including search-and-rescue, disaster response, fugitive apprehension, building searches, and dealing with bombs and hazardous materials. The department will not use its unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance of individuals or overflights of private property without a search warrant.
“It’s a very limited application of the technology. We only use it for warrant, felony-in-progress or life-and-death situations,” said Dallas Police Sgt. Ross Stinson.
Currently, the department has five Part 107-certified pilots assigned to the drone unit full-time. In addition, several officers in the SWAT division, who are also certified drone pilots, will fly the department’s UAVs, when the need arises in tactical situations.
The departments drone fleet comprises a mix of DJI-produced drones, including Mini 2s, Mavics Pros, FPVs and Matrice 300 models. “The Minis are used as a primary trainer and in tactical operations. The Mavics are used in intermediate response for both airspace and tactical response, both in indoor and outdoor operations,” Stinson said. “The Matrice is solely used outside for search and rescue operations and to provide situational awareness for tactical operations.”
Stinson said the department has not reconfigured the drones, and instead relies on the capabilities that the unmanned vehicles have when they come “straight out of the box.” For example, both the Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced and the Matrice drones are equipped with thermal camera capabilities, which makes them valuable for assisting in nighttime search-and-rescue operations.
Although the Dallas PD does not currently have the hardware that would allow it to equip any of its drones to carry a payload, Stinson said this was a feature that the department would consider adding in the future.
“Having the ability to deliver life-saving equipment and critical resources is something that I believe will be a valuable capability,” he said. “We just want to make sure, like with everything else we do, that we do it the right way. The first steps of this program are about implementing the technology into these dynamic situations as efficiently as possible.”
Program developed over several years
The Dallas PD began looking into launching a UAS program in 2015 and studied the issues surrounding its deployment for several years, before the unit’s official launch earlier this year.
“In November 2020 we took the first steps to formalizing it, and in June 2021, we started selecting the team members,” Stinson said. “Slowly, over the course of that time, after seeking outside training and developing internal training standards and policies, we eventually started field testing it on preplanned critical operations.”
In late January, the department formally announced the creation of the drone unit and immediately began putting the drones into action. In fact, one of the unit’s first missions took place on the same day as the press conference, when the UAS team took part in the search for a missing 11-year-old boy.
“We were out there working in conjunction with mounted, canine and other search-and-rescue resources attempting to locate this kid,” Stinson said.
Although the drones did not find the child – he was located hiding in the garage of a friend’s family – having the UAS unit search the heavily wooded areas of the city helped free up personnel who would otherwise have had to search the areas on foot.
In addition to ensuring that all its drone pilots are certified under the FAA’s Part 107, the UAS program has also sought additional certifications from the National Institutes of Standards and Testing, which establishes standards for all types of robotic applications, including drones, underwater remote operated vehicles, and legged and wheeled robots, such as those used in bomb-disposal operations.
Privacy rights respected
In designing its UAS program, the Dallas PD listened to the opinions of various interest groups and members of the community, who expressed concerns that the drones not be used to conduct routine surveillance of ordinary citizens.
“We wanted to make sure that the Fourth Amendment was protected and that the right of privacy was of the utmost concern,” Stinson said.
In addition to operating under FAA’s UAS regulations, the Dallas PD’s program is constrained by Texas Government Code 423, which governs the use of all unmanned aerial systems, and places limits on the use of drones by public safety agencies.
“What we did at the Dallas PD was create a launch matrix that determines when it’s OK and not OK to launch the UAS for a specific mission,” he said.
For example, if the police believe that a suspect is hiding a stolen car in his backyard, the department would not be allowed to fly a drone over the yard in order to obtain the initial probable cause for a search warrant. However, once the warrant is issued, or if a felony in progress is observed, the department will launch a drone to gather information to help officers resolve the situation in the safest way possible, he said.
“Our whole goal is to use this technology to save lives and make the situation safer not only for the individuals involved, but also officers and the public as a whole. You will not see any type of Big Brother surveillance coming from the Dallas Police Department,” Stinson said.
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Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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