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Drone Company Is Establishing Cozy Relationship With Police

by Anthony W. Accurso

The revolving door between government agencies and private corporations has been well documented in industries like healthcare, defense, and fossil fuels, along with the democracy-eroding effects of such relationships. A worrying new trend shows surveillance companies and law enforcement agencies establishing such relationships.

While Amazon recently made headlines in regards to promotional strategies used to market its Ring doorbells and related camera products — the company was giving them to police to hand out to homeowners in their communities — recent open records requests by Motherboard illustrate how Skydio, a drone company based in the U.S., is using positive engagement strategies to co-opt police officers into creating ever closer ties between the company and its institutional customers.

Like any slick marketing campaign, Skydio is creating social networks around their products. They market their drone products directly to first responders — though their public-facing marketing materials focus more on firefighters than police — and create advertising videos posted on YouTube that have high production values.

They run a mailing list called Skydio Tactical Advisory Committee (“STAC”). It reaches “hundreds of officers from dozens of police departments across the country” but also includes fire department officials and other government officials, with at least one subscriber from DHS.

The company uses STAC to send out more than just ads, though. It intentionally seeks media partnerships with active duty officers willing to use its drones and be filmed doing so. One message said the company was “open to working with departments to financially subsidize overtime or equipment costs associated with this filming.”

“We are not asking for any explicit endorsement, but rather support in facilities and personnel for filming the series,” it continued. “We will however give proper credit for any support that is provided as validation of your agency being forward thinking in the advancement of the drone industry.”

One individualized recruiting message was sent to David Cameron, head of the drone program for the Campbell, California, Police Department.

“Will you be in uniform/willing to appear in the video?” a Skydio representative wrote to Cameron regarding a “traffic stop demo” the rep was hoping to shoot. “[Skydio employee] James is a camera wizard and will have you looking like Brad Pitt, but understand if you can’t do that. Would love to have a uniformed officer in the video somehow — let me know if we can launch you into a second career in Hollywood!”

Playful banter aside, Skydio grooms officers like Cameron the same way Big Pharma once groomed doctors, until the blatant conflict-of-interest of having doctors serve as de facto sales reps was practically regulated out of existence — for good reason, as people’s lives were at stake. And the stakes for having public servants cozy up to an apex-surveillance-capitalist-unicorn like Skydio are in no way lower than those in how the relationship between Big Pharma and doctors once was.

Records requests show Cameron has exchanged hundreds of emails with Skydio reps from his official police email and has evangelized their products in video ads, internally at the Campbell PD, on industry webinars, and other sales events. He was even invited as a single-channel guest on the company’s Slack (an internal social media and workflow platform).

To glimpse a likely future for Cameron, one need only look to some of Skydio’s official employees, like William “Fritz” Reber, formerly of the Chula Vista, California Police Department (now retired from policing). Reber interacts heavily with the STAC mailing list and leverages his contacts from years in law enforcement to gain additional jurisdictions as customers, often by convincing officers to be beta testers and quasi-salespeople.

“We always look to hire top talent to help us develop great products and better serve our customers based on the needs of specific sectors. Our team includes experts who come from all of the major markets we serve,” said Skydio. Regarding active duty officers though, the company is keen to stress the unofficial relationship it has with such promoters, often because of regulations prohibiting such relationships.

“Skydio collaborates with customers to understand their drone needs and share the value they receive from our products. These collaborations are entirely voluntary and are not compensated,” the company wrote.

Ian White, a captain at the Campbell PD, noted that “[the department] has policies regarding secondary employment and the use of City email and resources that we expect all employees to abide by and will hold all employees accountable to,” though he was “unable to comment any further regarding this as it is a personnel issue.”

According to White, the City of Campbell has seven drones — two are from Skydio — which it uses in “high risk situations,” such as “barricaded wanted subjects, area searches for wanted felons and at-risk missing persons, and building searches.”

The Skydio website shows other law enforcement use cases, such as gaining access to crime scenes in difficult terrain to collect video evidence, even using LIDAR (light detection and ranging) to render 3D models for evidence collection and preservation.

There are several seemingly benign uses for Skydio’s products, and several will result in significant savings in labor hours and training where its drones automate tedious tasks that only an AI-powered drone can do better than a human.

But make no mistake, the ease of use for a platform like Skydio’s drones is not only a “breakthrough autonomy” product but also amounts to a massively invasive expansion of the surveillance capabilities of police in an era where the Fourth Amendment is under constant assault and flux.

And the company is likely to be around for a while. It was founded by three graduates of MIT, and two of them worked on Google’s autonomous drone project before founding Skydio. It is also the first U.S.-based drone manufacturer to reach a valuation of over $1 billion. Their first-responder products are also integrated into the cloud platform operated by Axon, one of the largest makers of police bodycams and Tasers.

The company really grew in the wake of the U.S. Government’s ban on the use of Chinese drones for military applications over spyware concerns. Skydio’s drones are listed as “blue drones” — drones the Pentagon has recognized as “trusted and secure.”

“We make the drone in California, design our own software in house, and source our core processors from US companies,” wrote Brandon Groves, Skydio’s vice president of regulatory and policy affairs. “Even so, there are some minor commodity components (like the plastic in our gimbal) that is (sic) made in China. (We’re still far more secure than Apple iPhones, which are designed here but made in China, as you know.)”

At least under this expansion of the police state, the populace won’t have to worry about also being spied on by China. 


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