by Casey J. Bastian
Police departments across the U.S. have been increasingly reliant on drones for a variety of law enforcement duties. The Huntsville Police Department (“HPD”) in Alabama has seen a 300 percent year-over-year increase in drone usage since 2017. The HPD drone program has been hailed as a success by city leaders. And other state and city leaders are taking notice.
Huntsville has a population of 216,000 and considerers itself a “technology driven” city. The HPD first utilized drones in 2017. Police administrators were hoping to support patrol officers with real-time intelligence. It was hoped that drones could also be used to collect forensic crime scene evidence. The HPD took approximately one year to develop its drone plan. This allowed for the creation of a very intentional plan before any equipment was purchased. The HPD had tremendous support from city leaders and other stakeholders. This deliberateness helped the HPD determine mission roles and allowed the department to make highly informed decisions about the purpose of its drone program.
In early 2019, the HPD chose the Autel Evo II platform for the new drone program. The department also chose a “patrol-embedded” approach. Officials claim this approach is highly effective for several reasons. According to Chad Tillman of the HPD, “These [drone] officers can respond to an event in precinct in under five to ten minutes, or are on scene anyway as part of their patrol duties. We have also found that this model takes advantage of the officer’s knowledge of the area and each precinct’s unique needs.”
Tillman admits that he is “really amazed at the breadth of mission types” the HPD is now flying. In 2021, the HPD had 1,241 drone flights totaling 273 flight hours. “Our first operation year, we flew a little over 300 flights with nine pilots. Last year, we flew 1,500 plus flights,” said Tillman. Today the HPD has 16 Autel Evo IIs and two Brinc Lemur S Drones. There have been 16 pilots added to the HPD roster as well. This brings the total to 21 active pilots and seven in reserve.
HPD’s drones have additional add-ons that improve their applicational abilities. This includes the ability to stream real-time information for sharing with in-field officers. HPD plans on continuing to train officers, establish command and control infrastructure, and improve coordination with other departments. Tillman stated, “About 80% of our mission support flights are rated ‘positive effect on mission outcome,’ with 25% rated ‘critical to mission success.’” This is getting the attention of other law enforcement agencies and departments. Reports confirm that HPD is currently providing mutual aid to other local departments.
“We are also beginning a statewide small unmanned aircraft system (“sUAS”) working group that focuses on law enforcement sUAS use. This will be used to bring state agencies together to discuss, train, and plan sUAS programs and usage,” said Tillman. This appears to be just the beginning of drone use for law enforcement purposes in Alabama. Tillman is adamant that the HPD “is going to continue with the embedded program.”
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