For the first time this New Year’s Eve, the New York Police Department used an unmanned drone to survey the crowds that converged on Times Square. Foot traffic in Times Square is already high, but on New Year’s Eve, it explodes from approximately 360,000 to over 1 million people. In a press conference on Dec. 27, NYPD chief of department Terence Monahan said that in addition to crowd control, the police drones would also be used to deter other, unwanted drones, measures he termed “drone mitigation protection.” He would not say what exactly these measures would involve, but it does point to the issues posed by more drones in the sky.
Drone use has exploded in recent years. Currently, over 1 million individuals and businesses are registered with the Federal Aviation Agency as drone owners. To keep better tabs on who is flying the friendly skies, the FAA is introducing a tracking mandate for all drones over a certain weight flying in U.S. airspace. Under the mandate, units weighing 0.55 pounds or above will have to broadcast their identity and position at all times. More drones in airspace has led to incidents of drones colliding with larger aircraft, flying in prohibited areas or in an “unsafe manner.” Private companies could also create their own drone-tracking systems, with approval from the FAA. In addition to bringing much-needed order to who is flying what and where, the regulations are considered crucial if drones are to be used commercially, such as in freight and package delivery.
Police departments across the U.S. are also expecting to use drones more in their work. 2016 figures showed that 347 police departments across 43 U.S. states use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). More law enforcement departments use drones than fire departments: 63 percent of agencies with drones were sheriff or police, while fire departments accounted for only 20 percent. In December 2018, the NYPD unveiled a new drone system for use in hostage situations and search & rescue operations. This system included 14 drones: 11 small units for tactical operations, two weather-resistant units, and one for training. In 2020, the San Diego Police Department will deploy the military-grade SkyGuardian drone, manufactured by General Atomics, in a test flight to “map critical infrastructure.” They have diverse public safety applications, but the most useful scenario is where officers cannot access a location easily or safely, such as in a hostage situation or terrorist attack. In Scotland, police are using AI-powered drones in missing persons cases.
When it comes to tracking drones, such a system could help the residents of Phillips County, Colorado, sleep at night. In late December, residents reported sightings of drones flying over neighborhoods in a grid formation between the hours of 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. — and police had no idea who the drones belonged to. According to Undersheriff William Myers, the size and number of drones in the formations make it unlikely that they are being flown by hobbyists. However, the Drug Enforcement Agency denies that the drones belong to them, as does the U.S. Army.