Public safety drones could be coming to aid federal law enforcement

As unmanned aerial vehicles--commonly known as drones--become more common in both the public and private sectors, the government is exploring new ways they can be used to assist law enforcement. While military agencies have been using drones for years, the use of drones by traditional law enforcement and federal law enforcement is growing significantly.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security began working with Silicon Valley technology groups to use small drones to provide officers with greater visibility in rough terrain. Congressman Will Hurd (R-Tex.) has recently pushed for increased funding for drone technology in current border security discussions.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) both employ drones to improve safety and assist in data gathering.

Dawn Stevenson of the Federal Times reports, “Drones enable DOI to carry out wildfire response at night, while helicopters can only operate eight hours a day. This extended window for surveillance and operations is critical for work that is time-sensitive, giving responders a much better chance of containing wildfires.”

The DOI reports that drone operations require 1/7th of the time other missions require and only 1/10th of the resources.

The DOT uses drones for bridge inspections, allowing them to assess a variety of structural elements in a timely and comprehensive manner. Both agencies claim that drones allow them to catch problems before they happen, avoiding dangerous and costly situations.

Treasury Secretary Elaine Chao was expected to discuss the future of drone technology at a tech conference in Las Vegas this month, but has canceled due to the shutdown.

Local first responders are also beginning to explore the benefits of drone technology.

The Merton Fire Department in Waukesha County, Wisconsin has recently purchased a drone with an infrared camera. Fire Chief Josh Paral has said, “This will work extremely well for locating a lost person. We can also locate smoldering spots after a structure fire.”

Fairfax County, Virginia is also in the process of developing a comprehensive Public Safety Unmanned Aircraft Systems program and is currently requesting public comment on ways drones can be used to respond to and prevent public disasters without compromising privacy.

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