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New Drone Tech Being Deployed by Police

Chula Vista, a city of approximately 50 square miles between San Diego and the Mexican border, has been operating a drone program in conjunction with its 911 response for the past two years. The program is called “Drone as First Responder,” and it has launched more than 4,100 flights since its inception.

The drones in use by Chula Vista’s 911 program are operated by an officer at police department offices and function like any basic drone. They can help track suspects, surveilling their movements while recording video for use in court. Up to 15 flights per day occur from two launch sites, covering 70 percent of 911 calls for the town of 270,000 people.

Staffing costs for drone programs are not insignificant, and the drones themselves cost far less than a helicopter yet serve many similar functions. The drones used by Chula Vista are made by DJI and cost the department about $35,000. This cost, a fraction of a helicopter’s cost, is likely to drive widescale adoption, and at least three other cities have started using drones for 911 calls in the latter half of 2020.

Quite troubling are the new capabilities likely to be enabled as AI back-ends upgrade the drones with new features that have serious civil rights implications.

Sergeant James Horst of Chula Vista recently demonstrated new autopilot and obstacle avoidance features for a New York Times journalist. This drone, built by Skydio of Silicon Valley, was sent (with a single click) to survey an abandoned vehicle in a riverbed. Skydio has previously offered a consumer drone that can follow you while weaving between obstacles.

When seeking the abandoned vehicle, it dodged trees while navigating to the point of interest.

“An ordinary drone would have crashed by now, guaranteed,” said Horst.

Another drone, developed by Shield AI and featured recently in Wired magazine, can enter a building and survey it entirely, moving room to room, without assistance from an operator. This survey drone was developed for room-clearing and threat-assessment operations in Afghanistan, but like other military tech, is being repurposed for use in civilian contexts.

Having drones that can “lock-on” to persons or vehicles of interest sounds useful, until they’re used against protestors and other citizens without a warrant. A further concern is that already overpoliced communities will be persistently “patrolled” by drones, filming even minor infractions and contributing to overincarceration of Black and Brown people. “Drones can be used to investigate known crimes,” said Jay Stanley of the ACLU’s Project on Speech, Privacy, and Technology. “But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.”

Communities should be made aware when police consider using any new technology so that citizens can hold departments accountable for policies that may jeopardize our already threatened civil rights. 


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