Drones Are Now Essential to Public Safety Operations

DJI’s drones have revolutionized public safety operations, leading to new use cases for this exciting technology.

A decade ago, the idea of a commercially-retailed drone to record personal memories seemed both futuristic and inconceivably expensive to most individuals. Today, DJI, a Chinese technology company, is producing just that. Gone are the days of needing to chase loved ones with a handycam or a mobile phone; DJI’s technology allows users to document their lives with unprecedented ease.

Even though the technology was initially targeted at hobbyists and “people who wanted to have fun,” DJI realized that its product’s use cases extended far beyond what they had initially envisioned. With each new model released, the company saw that its consumer base had expanded to cinematographers, safety departments, inspection officers, and law enforcement agencies.

Behind the motors and rotors

DJI’s drone technology was born from years of experience developing the technology behind flight controllers.

The drones, with propellers and between 4-6 motors depending on the model, constantly compute variables like wind speed, GPS location, and operator control inputs to achieve flight stability. The three-axis gimbal at the bottom of the drone allows for stable photography and videography. The operator can communicate with the drone and receive real-time HD video of what the camera is filming, as well as flight control and telemetry inputs.

The first line that DJI released was the ‘Phantom’ line, followed by the ‘Inspire’ line in 2014. Using this model, users gained the ability to change the camera type depending on the purpose. This was also the first DJI drone with a thermal camera.

For the ‘Mavic’ model, DJI shrunk the size of the drone such that users could carry it to the beach or on walks. And over time, as business clientele became a new market for DJI, the company began to develop more professional models, such as the ‘Matrice 200’ and ‘Matrice 600’. DJI also partnered with Ryze Tech to create small, indoor drones which can be used in the classroom.

“Getting young minds interested in drone technology is important,” says Romeo Durscher, Senior Director of Public Safety Integration at DJI. “The drone industry is providing more jobs, so students and educators are starting to integrate drones into their lesson plans.”

As the commercial applications of drones have become clear, and DJI has leaped from success to success, the company has discovered a new and socially-beneficial use case for its technology: rescue operations and public safety.

Steering society to better safety

Diverging from its consumer-facing origins, DJI’s drones are now used extensively in public safety operations to provide additional live data points that can allow first responders to make “safer, better and faster decisions.” In search and rescue operations, drones can be used to take photographs of areas that cannot be traversed easily by foot.

Drones are also used in ‘orthomosaic mapping,’ to document accident and crime scenes. Aerial photographs taken by drones are used to create a map of an area to scale, with topographical information such as distances and elevations. These aerial photographs also facilitate the creation of 3D maps, which can be highly useful in natural disaster mitigation.

In 2018, DJI partnered with the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), a non-governmental entity that focuses on bringing new technologies to public safety enforcement in the member states of the European Union.

DJI had been looking into the public safety applications of its tech since 2015, and in 2018, conducted a research study with the EENA to investigate the effectiveness of drones in search and rescue operations. The study conducted 50 controlled trials to compare traditional search and rescue deployments with drone-enabled search and rescue deployments.

Researchers found that on average, a team using drones was able to locate missing victims 190 seconds faster than a traditional operation conducted solely on foot, proving that drone technology could have immensely beneficial applications in public safety.

Durscher has been part of specialized task forces to deploy drones and collect aerial data. He was part of the team that was deployed to mitigate Camp Fire in Paradise, California, which killed 85 people. DJI’s drone technology accelerated and facilitated a number of aspects of the operation.

“Within 48 hours, our team of Law Enforcement and Fire Department drone teams mapped the entire city of Paradise in over 70,000 images,” says Durscher. “Through one of our Software Development Kit (SDK) partners, DroneDeploy, we put together a map of the size of over 13,000 soccer fields.”

1500A before/after map of the Paradise Camp Fire. Image courtesy of DJI.

These maps helped first responders to better gauge the situation, sped up the processing of insurance claims, and were useful for reconstruction operations even two years later.

Speaking at Knowledge of Design Week in Hong Kong in August 2020, Durscher highlighted some of the key lessons from DJI’s work in disaster relief. Identifying clear objectives and benefits, considering public perception by highlighting transparency and use cases, and adaptability were some of the major takeaways.

Apart from challenges with privacy and regulatory concerns, the problem of latency, or network delays, still persists in the deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in disaster relief.

4G and 5G networks have relatively lower latency, but in areas that are out of range of strong telecoms networks, lengthier lag times in delivering video feeds back to viewing devices can still be expected. It is also very likely that supporting infrastructure may have been damaged or disabled in the disaster area, driving latency upward.

However, establishing new technologies is a learning experience and takes time, Durscher said. It is important to get public backing so that people are aware of how data collection can help them.

Further, the more technologies are integrated into the end product, the stronger autonomous flight functionality becomes in enabling disaster relief aid, he noted during the panel.

Drones: a vehicle for vice?

In the light of increasing global concerns over surveillance and privacy, it is worth questioning the extent to which DJI’s drones can be misused. From dropping contraband into prisons to serving as lookouts for those engaging in illicit activities, there are a multitude of ways in which drones can be used in a way that – contrary to their new applications in public safety – may actually threaten privacy and individual freedoms.

DJI has minimized the potential for such misuse in multiple ways. By implementing ‘GEO-fencing’, which is a process by which certain areas are designated as ‘no-fly zones,’ DJI makes it impossible for operators to fly drones over prisons, airports and nuclear power plants, and other sites where these products could be put to poor use.

The company has also developed a tool called ‘AirScope,’ which lets you track any DJI drone, its location, telemetry, and operator, providing airports and other critical infrastructures with a way to monitor their airspace.

“We want to provide our users with the most helpful information about their environment, and to contribute towards the safe and helpful deployment of drones,” says Durscher.

What next for DJI drones?

In its ongoing endeavor to further develop its technology, DJI is considering ‘singular drone deployment,’ which comprises drones conducting individual operations but reporting back to a command station and being aware of the locations of other drones in the same operation. ‘Drone deliveries’ of medical supplies and other vital items would also greatly assist in public safety operations.

Durscher believes that there is infinite potential for the development of drones to benefit the general public, and continues to work toward making optimal use of drone data and imagery.

“We have only touched the tip of the iceberg; drone technology will continue to evolve,” he says.

Additional reporting by Sharon Lewis.

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