NYPD Tests Drones as Emergency Broadcast Systems

BY Zacc Dukowitz
2 August 2023

The New York City Police Department is leaning into drones these days.

After years of a total drone ban in the city, the NYPD recently led an effort to start allowing people to obtain permits to fly there.

And now the NYPD is expanding its own use of drones by testing them as emergency broadcast systems.

Credit: DJI

Describing the initiative as a test of “remote-piloted public messaging capabilities,” the tests focus on using drones to issue public safety warnings during emergencies.

During an emergency like a flood or some other severe weather event, the NYPD will fly drones designed to transmit pre-recorded or live audio messages over communities, sharing information to help keep people safe.

Heat waves could also be a scenario in which this type of broadcast system might be used, with drones transmitting warnings to people to find cool places and avoid the heat during the hottest parts of the day.

First Tests Focus on Heavy Rains

The NYPD announced the tests on Twitter recently, after weeks of heavy rain and flash flooding.

According to an NYPD spokesperson, the tests took place at Hook Creek Park in Queens. More heavy rains were anticipated, and officers flew through the park warning people about the coming rain and warning them to stay inside.

The NYPD hasn’t shared anything publicly yet about the results of this initial test.

Drones with Loudspeakers Got Their Start with COVID-19

Using drones to broadcast public safety messages was first tested during the COVID-19 pandemic, when drones were used by law enforcement around the world to ask people to adhere to social distancing guidelines while keeping officers at a safe distance themselves.

Though the idea was the same, the specific tactics used varied from country to country.

In China, authorities flew drones near groups of people congregating at the height of the pandemic, chiding them to split apart and go home in order to avoid spreading COVID.

In the U.S., drones were used to warn encampments of homeless people about the dangers of being too close together.

And in Spain, law enforcement used drones to spread pre-recorded messages about social distancing.

After COVID-19 ushered in the idea of using drones to spread messages to the public, equipping drones with loudspeakers seemed to catch on.

DJI now makes a loudspeaker for the DJI Mavic 3 Enterprise, a version of the Mavic 3 designed for use in public safety applications.

Credit: DJI

The idea seems like a good one, at least on paper. But it certainly has its critics.

One of the loudest objections to the NYPD’s new tests has come from the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit devoted to ending discriminatory surveillance.

This plan just isn’t going to fly. The city already has countless ways of reaching New Yorkers, and it would take thousands of drones to reach the whole city . . . The drones are a terrible way to alert New Yorkers, but they are a great way to creep us out.

– Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project

It’s too early to know whether the NYPD will scale this testing to a more general use. But we could imagine drones being deployed in specific scenarios to make sure people are aware of imminent danger.

After all, in areas with tornadoes there is a messaging system in place to let people know when one is coming, so they can take action to avoid harm. In areas that don’t have that kind of built-in system, like New York City, using drones to warn people about imminent threats to their well being seems well worth investigating.

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