Deploying a drone as a first responder

How a municipal police department partnered with a Silicon Valley startup to transform police operations


Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy will discuss the department's "drone as first responder" program at IACP 2019. 

By Fritz Reber

The Chula Vista Police Department's Drone as First Responder (DFR) Program is a revolutionary drone use case intended to increase officer safety, enhance efficiency and improve response times. The system involves deploying at-the-ready drones from the top of buildings within the city to calls for service and critical incidents, with the drones operated remotely via the internet by a unique position called the teleoperator.

The teleoperator is not just a drone pilot, but also a police officer with the ability to manage incidents and direct appropriate response. The DFR program provides first responders with decision-quality data and incident management before anyone on the ground is in harm’s way.

Drones are deployed from rooftops as part of Chula Vista Police Department's Drone as First Responder program. (Photo/CVPD)
Drones are deployed from rooftops as part of Chula Vista Police Department's Drone as First Responder program. (Photo/CVPD)

Creating a new policing position

Due to limited resources and personnel, law enforcement agencies often send uniformed officers to every reported incident with little time to problem-solve before arrival.

Call takers in dispatch centers barely have time to keep up with incoming calls for service, often only entering the incident details into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system and then moving on to the next incoming 911 call. The call then sits in the queue within CAD until officers can respond. In the meantime, there is no opportunity to problem solve and strategize an appropriate police response.

The DFR program creates a new policing position ‒ the teleoperator ‒ who monitors holding and incoming calls for service deploying the drone when necessary. DFR is not just a technical solution using a drone, but a tactical solution utilizing a trained incident manager.  

Currently, DFR operation at the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) involves a teleoperator and two FAA-trained pilots, who are each stationed on separate rooftops within the city. One is on the roof of CVPD headquarters, the other is on a medical facility about 1 mile south of HQ. At this moment due to resource limitations, CVPD is utilizing DFR during a single shift each work (40 hours) with plans to expand the program from 2 rooftops to 3, and from 4 days a week to 7.

How the DFR program works

The FAA Part 107-licensed pilots on the rooftops are tasked with making the drone ready for launch, keeping the batteries charged/swapped, maintaining visual awareness of the airspace where the drone is operating, taking over the controls during any emergency or manned aircraft incursion, and ensuring proper landing when the drone returns after each mission.

Currently, CVPD utilizes DJI Matric 210 V2s equipped with a Zenmuse Z30 (30x zoom) camera and a Zenmuse XT (thermal) camera. The teleoperator is located in CVPD's real-time crime center and communicates with the rooftop pilots via radio.

The DFR operation features a teleoperator and two FAA-trained pilots, who are each stationed on separate rooftops within the city. (Photo/CVPD)
The DFR operation features a teleoperator and two FAA-trained pilots, who are each stationed on separate rooftops within the city. (Photo/CVPD)

The teleoperator deploys and operates the drone via Cape Aerial Telepresence software, which enables the drone to be flown from any internet-connected device. The pilot uses flight automation features like dropping a pin on a map, or flying the drone and manipulating the camera manually using the keyboard and mouse. The teleoperator then communicates via radio with officers in the field and serves as just another patrol resource.

The teleoperator may or may not be an FAA-trained pilot, but is a sworn police officer experienced in incident management. The officer's skill set is managing the holding calls in CAD, deciding which incidents to launch the drone toward and managing police response to any incident. Often the teleoperator will respond to holding calls and clear them without the need to send officers. This not only reduces overall response times but saves time and fuel, freeing up officers for more pressing calls for service

Often the teleoperator will respond to holding calls and clear them without the need to send officers. (Photo/CVPD)
Often the teleoperator will respond to holding calls and clear them without the need to send officers. (Photo/CVPD)

In other cases where officers are responding, the teleoperator can direct officers on the proper tactical response; whether it is to hurry up, stand back, or respond from another approach. These incidents often involve reports of mental health concerns, potential weapons involved, or in thankfully rare circumstances, possible officer ambush.

Drone program borne out of tragic shooting, sara project

The idea to use a drone as a first responder was born out a tragic shooting of an unarmed man with a history of mental illness that occurred in a neighboring city and resulted in violent community protests. Would the ability to have eyes on this incident before uniformed officers arrived have prevented this? The Chula Vista Police Department wanted to know the answer to this question.

In the fall of 2016, CVPD conducted a beta-test of an internally conceived original patrolling technique they called the SARA Project (after the community policing acronym for the problem-solving system of Scan, Analyze, Respond, Assess). This involved assigning a plainclothes officer (SARA officer) in an unmarked vehicle as a dedicated resource to patrol operations each day. This officer's primary duty was to respond immediately to any priority call with the potential to impact officer safety such as person with a gun, ongoing fights and crimes in progress. The goal was to put professional eyes on the incident without the expectation of taking immediate action. The SARA officer could respond to the scene covertly and direct uniformed officers in safely with actionable real-time intelligence.

Before the SARA option, officers were forced to rely on third-hand information passed through dispatch from the 911 caller who is often understandably unreliable and emotional. Also, in terms of managing resources, most police calls require at least two officers to respond, so the SARA project provided the ability to send a single officer to an incident and perhaps determine that no police response was necessary. This would free up resources to reduce response times to other more important calls for service.

After a 3-month beta test of this program, it was proved to be a valuable tool for everyday patrol operations. However, it was ultimately impractical since it was difficult for only a single SARA officer to consistently arrive first at the most critical incidents throughout the entire city. Anecdotal success proved the SARA Project concept, but increases in efficiency and resource management were needed to make it scalable and useful for other agencies to adopt.

When members of the Chula Vista Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Team were introduced to a drone software company called Cape in early 2017, they realized the software features that include low-latency HD video, geofencing and remote operation capability, made it possible to replicate the SARA Project using a drone and a teleoperator instead of an officer in a car. The drone could fly over traffic and provide an aerial omnipresent perspective of the scene. The use of a drone instead of a plainclothes officer made the SARA Project concept more effective and scalable.  

Coincidentally, in October 2017, the Federal DOT and FAA proposed a nationwide Integration Pilot Project (IPP) to encourage the private sector to partner with public agencies to find unique concept of operations (CONOPS) or use cases for drones to accelerate the integration of drones in the National Airspace (NAS).

CVPD in partnership with Cape joined the San Diego IPP Team as the public safety CONOPS. San Diego’s submission was one of 10 cities selected from hundreds of entrants in the national competition. 

To date, CVPD has flown more than 1000 missions, assisted on over 120 arrests and cleared 200+ calls for service. (Photo/CVPD)
To date, CVPD has flown more than 1000 missions, assisted on over 120 arrests and cleared 200+ calls for service. (Photo/CVPD)

DFR program stats

CVPD and Cape still partner and support daily operations that began on October 22, 2018. Currently, DFR covers 33% of the geographic area of Chula Vista, an area where over 70% of the priority calls for service occur. This is only possible because in March 2018 CVPD was approved by the FAA to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), allowing much greater coverage from each launch location. This FAA approval was the first for any public safety agency serving an urban environment in the nation.

To date CVPD has flown more than 1000 missions, assisted on over 120 arrests (many of which would not have occurred without the drone), cleared more than 200 calls for service without the need to send uniformed officers, and arrived on scene consistently before ground units, averaging a response time of about 2 minutes.

These statistics, updated daily, are available to the public on the Chula Vista Police Department’s Drone Program webpage. The site includes a video compilation of DFR successes.

A video example of DFR in action involving an ongoing domestic violence incident where officers were not able to clear to respond can be seen here:


The long-term vision for the CVPD’s DFR Program is two-fold: First, to enhance its operations and serve the community better by expanding DFR throughout the City of Chula Vista. Second, to prove the concept and develop techniques, strategies and drive industry innovations that will make DFR practical and scalable for use by other public safety agencies.

For more information on the DFR program, email freber33@gmail.com.


About the Author

William “Fritz” Reber retired as the patrol operations captain after 27 years with the Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD). Fritz’s introduction to UAS operations came first as a hobbyist, then as a Part 107 Pilot, and finally as the CVPD UAS Team Commander. He was the visionary behind the CVPD Drone as First Responder (DFR) Program and the Concept of Operations (CONOPS) author for CVPD in its selection as the San Diego IPP Public Safety CONOPS. He co-authored the BVLOS safety assessment/waiver.

Since his retirement in May 2018, Fritz continues to work with CVPD and Cape as a consultant assisting with the implementation of DFR into daily patrol operations. He also consults with private sector industry leaders on the needs of first responders related to remote, tactical and indoor UAS operations. Fritz is a technical expert for DRONERESPONDERS.org and has presented and served on multiple panels related to UAS.

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