Drone as a First Responder (or DFR) programs are initiatives in which police departments use a drone to respond to an emergency call right when it happens, deploying the drone to the scene of the call.
When the drone arrives, it livestreams video from the location of the call, giving officers en route the advantage of having aerial intelligence to prepare them for what they might encounter at the scene.
In a DFR program, drones are stationed at strategic locations throughout a city, ready to be dispatched immediately when an emergency call comes in.
A team monitoring the drone’s live feed (as shown above) can provide tactical information to officers on the way to the scene. This real-time intelligence can help officers avoid an ambush, know the direction in which a fleeing suspect ran, or add nuance to their understanding of the situation to help them decide whether an officer is needed at all.
Keep reading to learn everything there is to know about Drone as First Responder programs, including our list of the top first responder drones on the market, the benefits of using a drone as a first responder, and how to get a DFR program started at your public safety agency.
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What if you could know what’s happening at the scene of an emergency call before you get there?
This level of real-time intelligence is at the heart of the Drone as First Responder idea. By deploying drones immediately to the location of a 911 call, police officers dispatched to respond to the call can know in advance what they might encounter when they get there.
Credit: Santa Monica Police Department
Here’s how it works:
For this idea to work, the drones have to be deployed very fast. That’s why the DFR model typically requires drones to be placed at key strategic locations throughout a city.
And it works. In over 4,000 calls in the Chula Vista Police Department’s DFR program—the first DFR program in the U.S.—drones arrived on the scene in less than 2.5 minutes.
Another key data point from the Chula Vista P.D.: in over 1,000 drone deployments, the live feed from the drone helped avoid the need for dispatching a patrol unit. That means the drone footage showed that there was not a need for police to show up physically over 1,000 times, which is a big number—that’s 1,000 times where an officer didn’t have to put themselves in potential danger, and in which any possibility of escalation was completely avoided.
Drone as First Responder programs are still relatively new. While the idea is fairly straightforward, the regulatory hurdles required to start a DFR program are significant, and it can take considerable time and resources to get the approvals needed to start one.
The reason for this is because, in a true Drone as First Responder program, the drones dispatched to the scene of unfolding events will be flown Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) as well as over people, both operations that are prohibited by the FAA’s drone rules (called the Part 107 rules).
Because of these prohibitions, police departments—which constitute the vast majority of public safety agencies creating DFR programs—have to go through a lengthy, complicated process to be able to fly as needed for DFR operations. (You can also get permission to fly in these prohibited manners by securing a COA for your public safety drone program instead of going the Part 107 route.)
That being said, DFR programs are growing throughout the U.S. And companies like SkyFire Consulting and Axon Air are leading the way, providing end-to-end partnerships that help police departments make the Drone as First Responder vision a reality in their communities.
The Chula Vista Police Department, located in California, holds the distinction of pioneering the first ever Drone as a First Responder (DFR) program.
Recognizing the potential of drone technology to revolutionize emergency response, the department initiated the program in 2018 in collaboration with Cape, a drone teleoperations company.
In the Chula Vista program, drones are launched from the rooftop of the police department, often arriving on the scene of 911 calls faster than ground units.
This rapid deployment has allowed for quicker assessments, which result in more efficient resource allocation. Within the first 18 months, the program responded to over 4,100 calls and the program’s support contributed to 279 arrests. The drones also equipped officers with vital situational data that reduced the risk of confrontations, ensuring the safety of both the police and the public.
We coined that term [DFR] here in Chula Vista. That started here and in southern California, and we’re very proud of our humble beginnings on that.
– Sgt. Dustin Bruzee, UAS/DFR supervisor at the Chula Vista Police Department.
At first, the primary goal was to address high-priority 911 calls more efficiently.
By deploying drones from the roof of the police department, Chula Vista officers could swiftly assess situations and provide real-time aerial insights to officers en route to the scene. This approach reduced response times dramatically, often with drones arriving on-site within minutes of a call.
The success of Chula Vista’s program has not only resulted in increased safety and efficiency for their community, but has also paved the way for other police departments nationwide. Their innovative approach showcased the benefits of integrating drones into public safety operations, creating a model that others could replicate.
To this day, the Chula Vista Police Department leads the way in the use of drones for law enforcement by continuing to innovate in how drones can support police work and keep residents safe, and in providing full transparency on all its drone missions publicly on the Department’s website.
Credit: Clovis Police Department
In New Mexico, the City of Clovis has used drones not only for criminal pursuits but also for fire emergencies. Their DFR program provides real-time video feeds to dispatchers, offering a bird’s-eye view of incidents.
In one notable incident, drones were instrumental in tracking a suspect who fled a scene, leading to a swift arrest. In another instance, drones provided crucial insight into a warehouse fire, helping firefighters identify the most affected areas and strategizing their response. This real-time data has reduced response times and improved the safety and efficiency of emergency personnel.
Credit: David Massey / Daytona Beach Police Department
In Florida, the Daytona Beach Police Department has integrated drones into their daily operations.
While the Department uses drones in several ways to support its work, its DFR initiative has been particularly impactful. In events like the Daytona 500, drones have been used for crowd surveillance and management. On regular days, they assist in search-and-rescue operations, crime scene documentation, and active shooter situations. By providing a real-time aerial perspective, the drones have enhanced situational awareness, leading to better decision-making and heightened public safety.
As mentioned above, several companies now offer support to police departments to help them establish their own DFR programs.
Credit: SkyFire Consulting
SkyFire Consulting is one of the oldest and most highly regarded that we’re aware of—here’s a list of what it provides to give you a sense for the types of resources needed to get a Drone as First Responder program off the ground.
This short guide to first responder drones lists only models made with public safety in mind.
To see a longer list of drones that can be used in public safety, check out our guide to public safety drones.
The BRINC Lemur 2 is primarily a public safety drone, crafted explicitly for roles in public safety, emphasizing law enforcement and handling situations like hostage crises and active shootings. Equipped with specialized features, the Lemur 2 can maneuver in confined indoor areas, has bidirectional communication, and can break through glass windows for entry into structures (it’s the only drone that does this).
DJI’s Matrice series is a favorite choice for law enforcement and other public safety departments. The Matrice 30 is the most compact model in the series. It can be fitted with an optional thermal camera and is a durable, mobile drone designed for on-site tasks, including first responder and public safety operations.
The Skydio X2 is a compact, durable drone designed to support both daytime and nighttime first responder operations. Skydio’s drones are known for their autonomy, which allows the drone to fly largely on its own. The autonomy on the X2 gives first responders the freedom to act on the ground while still collecting aerial data, allowing them to chase an individual on foot or search for a victim of a car crash as the drone flies overhead.
Here are some key features to look for in a first responder drone:
So far we’ve covered how Drone as a First Responder programs work and some of the top first responder drone models on the market.
But should you consider starting a DFR program in your public safety agency?
To help you make a decision, here are the top six benefits these programs are providing to the police departments that use them.
The Chula Vista Police Department’s DFR program control center
One of the most significant advantages of DFR programs is the speed of deployment. Drones can be quickly launched and dispatched to the scene, often arriving faster than ground units.
This quick response ensures that vital decisions are made promptly, potentially saving lives and reducing damage.
Drones equipped with high-definition cameras and advanced sensors can provide real-time aerial perspectives, greatly enhancing situation awareness for unfolding events.
This immediate bird’s-eye view can give officers a comprehensive understanding of the scene, helping them strategize effectively and allocate resources more efficiently.
Whether it’s assessing the location of an active shooter, tracking a fleeing suspect, searching for victims of a car crash, or making sure an officer won’t be ambushed, the extra intelligence drones provide can prove crucial, and even life-saving, for both officers and residents.
With drones as the initial eyes on the scene, officers can maintain a safe distance from potentially dangerous situations, reducing the risk of harm. Advanced aerial intelligence allows officers to assess threats from a distance and approach situations with heightened awareness.
Drones can also help officers assess a situation before they arrive and determine whether they need to go at all, representing another safety benefit for them and potentially for residents on the scene.
In the long run, DFR programs can be more cost-effective than traditional, ground-based methods.
Drones can cover large areas swiftly, reducing the manpower and resources needed for large-scale operations, like searching for fugitives or suspects. Additionally, the maintenance and operational costs for drones are relatively lower compared to crewed aircraft, like helicopters.
Modern drones can be equipped with an array of sensors and come with a range of features, allowing law enforcement to collect a variety of data to aid their emergency response efforts.
From thermal imaging for nighttime operations—imagine using thermal imagery to find an old man with dementia in a corn field at a night, or identifying the location of a suspected car thief at night—to two-way communication systems for negotiation scenarios, drones can adapt to a wide array of emergency situations, making them versatile tools for public safety.
DFR programs not only aid in active response but also in post-incident analysis. The footage captured by drones can be invaluable for investigative purposes, training, and refining emergency response strategies.
As we mentioned above, it can be an involved process to launch a DFR program due to the FAA’s prohibitions on:
All of these operations are prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules, and all of them are potentially necessary to operate a successful Drone First Responder program.
But it is possible to get permission for your public safety agency to operate drones in all of these ways. Several other police departments have already done it, after all.
Credit: Santa Monica Police Department
At a high level, the three paths you can take to get permission to launch your own program are:
The main thing the FAA will be thinking about when you ask for permission to fly in prohibited ways is safety. So it’s important to be able to make a comprehensive safety case, demonstrating that you can operate as proposed without increasing risk to the National Airspace System or to people on the ground.
Setting up a successful DFR program requires meticulous planning, community engagement, and prioritization of public trust.
Here are some things to think about to guide your efforts to launch a DFR program. Whatever path you take, these are helpful considerations that will improve your overall drone program.
As a public safety agency, you can operate using the Part 107 rules, under a COA, or use both avenues. Many public safety agencies choose to do both, since that option can potentially allow for the greatest flexibility in your drone operations.
Because safety is so important, the FAA will want to see you choosing drone platforms in part for their safety. So make sure you select drones with obstacle detection and avoidance technology and other key safety features, including autonomy.
The safer your drones, the more likely you’ll get approval to fly them BVLOS and in other prohibited ways. On this note, you can ask companies if they have data on how many flights or flight hours have been successfully performed using their drones in BVLOS ops, or even in other DFR programs.
Ensure that your remote operators receive advanced training tailored to BVLOS and over-people operations. Documented evidence of pilot expertise and regular training updates can boost the confidence of regulators and increase the likelihood of waiver approvals.
Highlighting your organization’s commitment to community safety can make a significant difference in waiver applications.
Toward this end, create an in-depth manual detailing how you’ll handle BVLOS and over-people flights, including risk mitigation strategies, communication protocols, and emergency procedures. Remember, you don’t have to build this from scratch—ask other police departments that have already created their own drone programs if you can use their materials as a reference.
The FAA wants to help you submit successful applications. Make sure to use the resources and guidance the FAA provides, digging through other successful waiver applications so you can submit similar information.
Utilize the resources and guidance provided by the FAA on waiver applications. The FAA regularly updates its advice and best practices based on successful waiver requests.
And there are many others out there. If you have the resources, it’s worth doing your research and vetting these possible partners to find the one that’s the best fit for your organization.
Want to learn more about how public safety agencies are using drones?
Check out our in-depth guide to public safety drones, which includes 53 different public safety use cases for drone technology.