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Critical to Mission Success: How Huntsville PDStarted an Exemplary Drone Program

Critical to Mission Success: How Huntsville PDStarted an Exemplary Drone Program

BOTHELL, Wash. (February 25, 2022) — Drones have become increasingly popular tools for law enforcement departments across the country. Huntsville, Alabama is one such place, with a very successful drone program that was implemented with careful planning and support from city leaders. The program is increasing in size and scope, and the successes are attracting attention from neighboring agencies.

Huntsville, with a population of 216,000, prides itself on being a“technology-driven city, and has been for much of its history. Huntsville was one of the early homes of the U.S. rocketry programs and that earned it the nickname“The Rocket City.”

Intentional Beginnings

Huntsville Police Department first started looking into drones in 2017. The department was originally looking for drones that could support officers with rea-time intelligence, as well as collecting forensic and crime scene information.

In early 2019, HVPD sought the counsel and partnership support from our trusted technology provider, Westwind Computer Products Inc. regarding what sUAS and supporting solutions were available. It was found that the Autel Evo II platform suited our needs and created our foundation of success.

Unlike some other drone programs around the country, this one had support from commanders and city leaders. The higher-ups understood the potential value of a  drone program. Unlike many programs that start from the ground up, often with    pilots bringing drones they personally own, Hunstsville developed a plan for their   program long before purchasing drones.

HVPD took about a year to develop and fine tune their plan and training, with support from the police chief and city leaders. This helped them determine mission roles and other important information, allowing them to make the most informed   decisions possible.

HVPD took an approach they called “patrol embedded.” Drone pilots are patrol officers working across all precincts. This approach was highly effective for several reasons.

“These officers can respond to an event in precinct in under 5-10 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 precincts unique needs.”

A Program that Works

The drone program quickly proved its worth. 

“Our first operation year, we flew a little over 300 flights with 9 pilots. Last year, we flew 1,500 plus flights. We are able to provide major support to traffic investigation, drug interdiction, and special teams. It is still work to help everyone understand how this resource can benefit day-to-day operations, but I am really amazed at the breadth of mission types we are now flying. For example with traffic investigations, THI usually does not have to wait for a pilot, they are already on scene,” said Chad Tillman of Huntsville PD.

Drone use has increased about 300 percent per year, and they’ve played a vital role in a wide range of police missions.

In 2021, HVPD flew drones 1241 times for a total of 273 flight hours. They have 16 Autel EVO IIs and two Brinc Lemurs S drones. They added 16 pilots to their roster, for a total of 21 pilots and 7 in reserve.

Tillman continues on. “About 80% of our mission support flights are rated positive effect on mission outcome, with 25% ratedcritical to mission success.  The Autel EVO II has been a game changer for us. With its ease of use, long mission time and durability, we know we can trust our aircraft to perform when called on.

Along with the drones themselves, Autel’s Enterprise add-ons have proven valuable. The ability to stream information via the Live Deck was notably valuable; HVPD is able to share information with officers in the field, command teams, and other agencies.

The program’s success has also garnered interest from neighboring agencies.

“We are now starting to provide mutual aid to surrounding agencies and the most common comment we hear is.‘Wow, we sure like your Autels.’ We are also trying to ‘guide’ other agencies toward Autel. We love to hear, ‘I wish my 180k drone did what your Autel does.”

What’s Next for HVPD?

HVPD plans to continue training officers, establishing command and control infrastructure, and coordinating with other departments.

“We are going to continue with the embedded program. We also are adding trained Visual Observers. This is being done by offering a class each quarter to train20-25 VOs. We are also going to add a minimum of six pilots a year…We will also be training senior pilots to function as NAMACC sUAS ops officers and sUAS traffic management. We are building out an sUAS support vehicle and hope to be able to add a dedicated van in the future.”

The budget is an ongoing consideration, though it seems like HVPD is doing a good job of proving the program’s worth, and they’re starting to work with other departments to develop their own drone programs.

“We are also beginning up a state wide 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.”

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