CHULA VISTA, California – When Chula Vista police receive an emergency call, they can send a flying drone with the push of a button.
On a final afternoon, they sent a drone across town from a launch pad on the roof of the Chula Vista Police Department to a crowded parking lot where a young man was sleeping in the front seat of a stolen car with drug paraphernalia on his lap.
When the man got out of the car with a gun and a bag of heroin, a nearby police car had trouble following him as he sprinted across the street and ducked behind a wall. But when he threw the gun in a dumpster and hid the bag of heroin, the drone hovering overhead caught everything on camera. When he slipped through the back door of a mall, stepped through the front door, and ran down the sidewalk, it caught that too.
An officer at headquarters viewed the live video feed and shared the details with local police, who soon caught the man and took him into custody. They later retrieved the gun and heroin. And after another push of a button, the drone returned to the roof on its own.
Every day, the Chula Vista police respond to up to 15 emergency calls with a drone and have started more than 4,100 flights since the program began two years ago. Chula Vista, a town in Southern California of 270,000 residents, is the first in the country to adopt such a program called Drone First Aid.
In the past few months, three more cities – two in California and one in Georgia – have followed suit. Police agencies from Hawaii to New York have been using drones for years, but mostly in a simple, manually flown way. Officers carried a drone in the trunk of a car on patrol or drove it to a crime scene before hurling it across a park or flying it into a building.
However, the latest drone technology – mirror technology for self-driving cars – can transform day-to-day police work, as can parcel delivery, building inspection and military reconnaissance. Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on large helicopters and pilots, even small police forces could run tiny autonomous drones for a relative penny.
However, this newfound automation raises civil liberties concerns, especially as drones are given the ability to automatically track vehicles and people. As the police use more drones, they can collect and store more videos about life in the city, removing any expectation of privacy once you leave home.
“Communities should ask tough questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so too does the need to protect privacy, ”said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union Project on Language, Privacy and Technology. “Known crimes can be investigated with drones. But they are also sensors that can trigger offenses. "
As the pandemic continues to worsen, drones are a way to monitor remotely, said Rahul Sidhu, an official in Redondo Beach, near Los Angeles, who launched a program similar to Chula Vista shortly after the virus hit the United States had achieved.
"We're just trying to limit our exposure to other people," he said. "Sometimes you can send a drone without sending an officer."
But later, he said, as these small unmanned helicopters become cheaper and more powerful, they will provide more efficient ways to monitor urban areas. This could help law enforcement agencies at a time when recruits across the country are declining and many votes are calling for cuts after months of protests against police violence.
In Chula Vista, drones are already an integral part of the police response to emergencies. After an emergency call is received, the officers give the drone a location and it flies alone to that point – before it also returns alone.
The department's drones can cover around a third of the city from two launch sites and respond to around 70 percent of all emergency calls. After asking the Federal Aviation Administration to approve a third launch site, local police are hoping to cover the entire city, approximately 52 square kilometers between San Diego and the Mexican border.
According to legal requirements, a certified pilot must stay on the roof of the police department, monitor the take-off and, together with a police officer at a command station in the building, handle most of the flight once the drone has reached its destination.
F.A.A. Regulations protecting the flights of commercial and other aircraft prevent drones from being flown out of the line of sight of their operators. But Chula Vista received a waiver from the F.A.A. so that the pilot and officer can fly the drone up to three miles from its launch site.
Each drone – including remote cameras, other sensors, and software – costs the department about $ 35,000. However, the overarching cost of the program lies in the large number of officers required to operate the drones.
Another afternoon, when Chula Vista Police were made aware of an upside-down car in an empty river bed, they sent a new type of drone into the gorge. Built by Skydio, a Silicon Valley company, the company could avoid obstacles on its own thanks to many of the same technologies used by self-driving cars.
"An ordinary drone would have crashed by now," said Sgt. James Horst said when he saw a video of the drone falling into the riverbed and inspecting the interior of the car at close range.
Later, in the courtyard in front of the police department, he showed how, with another push of a button, he could instruct an automated drone to follow a specific person or vehicle on its own. Skydio has long had a consumer drone that can follow you from place to place even when moving between obstacles like trees in a forest. Now the company, which recently hired Fritz Reber, the former head of the Chula Vista police drone program, is selling to the police and other companies.
Shield AI, a startup in San Diego that has worked with law enforcement agencies, has developed a drone that can fly into a building and check the length and width of the site alone, without a pilot, in the dark, and unchecked in daylight. Others, including Skydio and DJI, a company in China that launches the drones from the roof of the Chula Vista Police Department, are building similar technologies.
The Chula Vista division treats drone videos in the same way as police camera videos, stores footage as evidence and only publishes it publicly with permission, Captain Don Redmond said. The department does not use drones for routine patrols.
For privacy advocates like Mr. Stanley of the A.C.L.U. there is concern that increasingly powerful technologies are being used to appeal to parts of the community – or to strictly enforce laws that are inconsistent with social norms.
"It could allow law enforcement agencies to enforce any area of the law against anyone they want," Stanley said.
Drones, for example, could easily be used to identify people and limit activity during protests that have been so prevalent across the country in recent months. Captain Redmond said the Chula Vista division did not use drones to protest against Black Lives Matters because their policies prohibited it.
Chula Vista police do not require permission from city officials to expand the use of drones. However, according to Captain Redmond, they have publicly informed the community of the further progress of the program.
Drones as first responder programs in places like Redondo Beach and Clovis, Calif., Are looking for exemptions that will allow them to fly beyond the operator's line of sight.
In Clovis, near the center of the state, police have found that their drones tend to overheat in midsummer. "We flew them four days a week until it got too hot," said Lt. James Munro. "Then we had to ground them."
However, he believes that these and other technical obstacles will soon be overcome. "Drones are like iPhones," he said. "As soon as you get one, there's a new one with new technology."