Austin PD Drones: Department to Launch Robotics Unit

DJI Airworks Keynote Austin PD dronesA new robotics unit will oversee operations of Austin PD drones.

By Jim Magill

The police department in the city of Austin, Texas plans to create a new Robotics Unit to oversee the operations of its drone fleet.

Within the next several months, the Austin Police Department is expected to request that the City Council approve funding for the creation of the unit, Assistant Chief Scott Perry said in an interview.

“Drones are a force multiplier,” Perry said. “As new technologies come on line … it’s always incumbent on us as an organization to make sure that we’re doing everything we can, making sure we have the latest technology that we can use to keep people safe and fight crime.”

The department first launched a drone pilot program around late 2019, using about $31,000 in donated funds and $1,800 in federal funds to purchase drones and equipment. Currently, Austin PD maintains a fleet of 17 multi-rotor UAVs, including 16 DJI Mavics and one Skydio drone, Perry said. The department currently has two pilots certified to fly the drones, with several other officers in training to receive their pilot certification.

“Once it becomes a full-time unit, there will be some expenditures that come into play, but we will be able to get our budget and see how we can best use the dollars that are allocated to the police department to either fund programs or get more drones,” Perry said.

As part of its effort to establish the Robotics Unit, Austin PD will also launch a public educational program, to familiarize the general public with the UAVs and the way in which the department plans to deploy them.

He said the educational outreach will help to reassure the public that the police department will not use the drones to conduct unwarranted intrusions on the rights of the public at large.

“Sometimes, drone usage can be unnerving to some people in regard to their privacy rights,” Perry said. “We are committed to make sure that we comply with the law, that we do not violate the rights of anybody in the community.”

The department plans to deploy its drone fleet to respond to several different types of situations, including crowd surveillance at large events, SWAT hostage situations and search and rescue.

Austin is the host of several large music and cultural events, such as the annual South by Southwest Conference & Festivals, and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. These popular events draw thousands of people, “sometimes between 75,000 and 80,000 people per event in a very small, confined area,” Perry said. “The drones would be used to monitor the crowds to make sure there are no dangers to the people enjoying the music festival.”

Another way in which the new unit’s drones can be used will be to assist ground patrols in spotting suspects who might be hiding in an open field or one of the many creek beds found throughout the city.

Austin PD is currently using its UAVs to assist in staging tactical SWAT operations, by giving the team members another perspective than that of officers standing on the ground.

Perry recounted one such SWAT operation involving a man who had barricaded himself in a second-story apartment with a female hostage.

“The officers on the ground were developing a plan to try to peacefully bring that to a conclusion. During that operation, the drone operator was able to get the drone close enough up the stairs and we were able to see through a sliding-glass window that the suspect was holding a screwdriver to the female,” Perry said.

Armed with this information, the SWAT team decided they needed to make an emergency entry to save the life of the potential victim. “That would not been possible had we not had that drone there to see from that perspective,” he said.

Mutual-aid agreements

In addition to deploying its drones in operations within the city, the Austin PD also is engaged in mutual-aid agreements allowing it to conduct joint drone operations with the sheriff departments of Travis and Williamson County as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“If there’s an event outside of Austin but within Travis County, we’ll assist them and vice versa. Inside the city of Austin if there are multiple events in one day, sometimes the Sheriff’s office will cover one event while we’re covering another,” said Perry.

Austin P.D.’s Robotics Unit will also be ready to respond to requests from other first-responder agencies for drone assistance to respond to large-scale emergency situations, such as massive wildfires, floods or other natural disasters, he said.

Public acceptance is key

In today’s politically charged atmosphere, in which many people harbor a deep suspicion of enhanced police power, especially as it involves privacy rights, Austin P.D. has its work cut out for it in assuaging public concerns over the use of drones. Perry said the educational outreach program, which will stress the proper police use of drones, is key to gaining public acceptance of a new dedicated drone unit.

“Anytime we’re operating the drones, we understand that all the citizens have the same Fourth Amendment protections they have as when an officer is walking around,” he said.

“Our officers are still required to follow the law, know what the law is, understand the Fourth Amendment, and follow the U.S. and Texas Constitutions,” he said. “Just because it’s a drone doesn’t mean that there’s any less expectation of privacy in regard to the community.”

In order to ensure the secure retention of its drone-collected data, the department employs the DroneSense software platform, which offers a Department of Defense-rated encrypted network, not accessible to unauthorized persons. The software tracks and records every drone flight, which will allow the department to review the data from each mission to ensure that there has been no improper use of the drones.

“That’s how we’re protecting that data that we have and the data we’re collecting from the drone itself, so it doesn’t go anywhere else. We don’t use any outside apps or servers that would be able to track all the data that we have from our drones,” Perry said.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.