RISK REPORT: PUBLIC SECTOR
More Eyes in the Sky
The use of unmanned
public agencies. Of
course, risks abound.
By Michelle Kerr
In the wee hours of a frigid February night in the village of Ludborough, Lincolnshire, England, a motorist flipped his car on an isolated road. Dazed, he wandered away from the scene and was spotted by a passerby who alerted authorities. Local police deployed a drone equipped with thermal imaging to aid in
the search. The drone found him within minutes, unconscious and hypothermic,
at the bottom of a ditch he’d stumbled into. Officials acknowledged he might have
died were it not for the quick action of the search team and their drone.
In the U.S., similar scenarios are unfolding across the country. In June 2017,
two hikers and their dog got lost in Colorado’s Pike National Forest. Douglas
County Search and Rescue dispatched a drone above the vast expanse of treetops
and found the trio in less than two hours.
A few months later, local police using a drone took less than 30 minutes to locate an
81-year-old woman who’d become lost in a cornfield in Asheboro, North Carolina.
“I imagine that if Superstorm Sandy were to happen today, they’d be using
[drones] a lot more to help find people that were still out there,” said Edward
Cooney, VP, account executive and joint insurance fund (JIF) underwriting
manager, Conner Strong & Buckelew.
But search-and-rescue is hardly the only application for unmanned aerial
vehicles (UAVs) in the public sector. According to a recent study published by
Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, the adoption of UAVs by
public safety agencies has been accelerating rapidly ever since the introduction of
inexpensive consumer drones in 2014.
As of March 2017, nearly 350 police and fire departments in 43 states are using
UAVs, for everything from crime scene photography to locating suspects and
stolen property to conducting safety and risk assessments during active fires and
locating people trapped inside burning buildings.
Drone applications outside of law enforcement and fire safety are growing as
well. Cooney, whose organization runs two large municipal entity pools, said its
member towns are either using UAVs or considering their use for a broad range
of applications, including:
• mass distribution of medications in the event of emergencies;
• identifying and tracking oil spills and other hazardous material releases;
• geotagging sewer pipes or boilers throughout townships;
• forestry applications, such as monitoring wildlife and the depletion or
overgrowth of forests;
• heat-mapping facilities, such as utility authorities and waste utilities to watch
for hotspots that could potentially cause fires;
• recording noise levels to investigate civilian noise complaints;
• remote water testing in areas that are difficult to access; and
• bridge monitoring and assessment.
FEAR OF OVERREACH
The versatility of drones, their
speed, efficiency and relatively low
cost is prompting calls for expanded
use. Following the mass shooting in
Las Vegas, a terrorism expert spoke
out about the need for drones to be
deployed to assist police in gathering
real-time intelligence during such
incidents. The president of the Los
Angeles Police Commission concurred,
suggesting the shooter’s location might
have been pinpointed faster had a
drone been deployed.
• Drone use in the public sector
has grown exponentially in the
past two years.
• Fear of government overreach is
an obstacle in some regions.
• Aviation policies typically don’t
cover all of an operator’s cyber
“It’s a lot different for me, as a
private citizen, if I’m capturing
images that potentially could
be violating someone’s privacy
versus a law enforcement
agency flying their helicopter
over someone’s backyard to see
what’s growing back there.”
— James Van Meter, drone expert and aviation
practice leader, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty
Public sector entities are leveraging drone technology throughout their operations.