Law Enforcement Early Adopter Hits Drone Milestone

Chula Vista PD drone
Credit: Chula Vista Police Department

A city police department that was an early adopter of using drones for law enforcement purposes in the U.S. recently surpassed 10,000 missions.

The Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) in Chula Vista, California, joined the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP) in 2018 as part of a regional partnership headed by the nearby city of San Diego. The department says it was one of just a few public safety agencies among nine industry-government partnerships the FAA chose to participate in the program, which aimed to expedite the introduction of small commercial drones into the airspace system.

Established by presidential memorandum as a three-year pilot effort in October 2017, the UAS IPP helped launch the first commercial drone delivery operations in the U.S.—by Alphabet Wing in Christiansburg, Virginia, and UPS Flight Forward in Raleigh, North Carolina—both in 2019. After its expiration, the UAS IPP was renamed and extended in 2020 as the “Beyond” program to emphasize more regular execution of drone flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of an operator, making waivers for individual operations unnecessary.

Community Buy-In

Chula Vista Police Chief screenshot
Credit: FAA UAS Symposium 2020

A suburb of San Diego covering 52 sq. mi., Chula Vista (“beautiful view”) has a population of 268,000. The CVPD formed a UAS committee to study the use of drones in public safety operations there in December 2015 and shared its plans in public forums and with the media. 

“The idea to use a drone as a first responder was born out of 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,” wrote Fritz Reber, who retired as a CVPD captain in May 2018 and now works as head of public safety integration for drone manufacturer Skydio. “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,” said Reber, in an article published by the website Police1.

“With strong support from the community,” the department started deploying drones from the rooftop of its headquarters on Oct. 22, 2018, to provide early awareness of 911 calls and other emergency incidents, including crimes in progress, fires, traffic accidents and reports of dangerous subjects. Since the inception of its Drone as First Responder (DFR) program, a CVPD drone was first on scene to 5,300 incidents and assisted in the apprehension of more than 1,140 offenders, the department said March 10 in announcing the 10,000th mission milestone. 

The average on-scene response time for Priority 1 calls has been reduced from 9.1 min. for a patrol unit to arrive on scene to 4.5 min. for a drone, according to the department’s website.

Under the UAS IPP, the CVPD and software developer Cape Aerial Telepresence developed a concept of operations that exploits and stores live-streamed video and photos from drones dispatched to emergency scenes. A “teleoperator” trained as a critical incident manager controls the drone remotely using a web browser and communicates with units in the field about the scene they are responding to. In addition to the teleoperator, first responders, supervisors and command staff can receive the drone’s video feed on their cell phones. Motorola Solutions acquired the cloud-based Cape platform in 2019.

“Since 2018, the DFR program has made an incredible difference in how we respond to emergency calls for service,” said Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy. “It allows officers to see what is happening at a scene, including what risk may or may not exist before they round the corner and are thrust into a dangerous situation. The DFR program makes our officers, our citizens and even the subjects we encounter safer. In my opinion, drones are immensely important to the future of public safety and are a critical de-escalation tool.”

Drone Industry Milestones

Chula Vista PD drone in flight
Credit: Chula Vista Police Department

The CVPD drone program has recorded a number of drone-industry firsts. In May 2019, the department said, the CVPD became the first law enforcement agency in the U.S. authorized by the FAA to fly drones BVLOS of an operator in an urban area, within a radius of 3 mi. from a launch site. In 2020, the CVPD and Skydio said they had obtained a new Close-Proximity, Low-Altitude waiver from the FAA’s Part 107 regulation that allows officers to fly drones BVLOS within a certain range.

The FAA authorized the department to open a second launch site 2 mi. south of its headquarters in August 2019, in partnership with Paradise Valley Hospital and Rush Properties. The second launch site expanded the area CVPD drones could cover to about 30% of the city’s geography, an area responsible for about 70% of priority calls for service. In November 2020, the CVPD received FAA authorization to fly two drones in close proximity for a single incident. 

The CVPD says it has established new launch sites with Southwestern College and Ayers Hotel and is now authorized to launch drones from anywhere in the city. The department lists 10 different drone models or variants it operates, including DJI Inspire, Mavic Pro, Phantom and Matrice multicopters as well as the Parrot Anafi and Skydio 2.

Bill Carey

Based in Washington, D.C., Bill covers business aviation and advanced air mobility for Aviation Week Network. A former newspaper reporter, he has also covered the airline industry, military aviation, commercial space and unmanned aircraft systems. He is the author of 'Enter The Drones, The FAA and UAVs in America,' published in 2016.