Starting a drone program is a significant undertaking and may be intimidating if you have no experience launching a new technological program.
There are many considerations at every step of the journey – from equipment startup costs to figuring out how many batteries you’ll need and where you’ll operate in terms of airspace. These factors take time and resources, even for experienced operators.
Starting a drone program requires dedicated supplies, support and experience. Here, I’ll walk you through seven steps you’ll need to follow to get your drone program off the ground.
Step 1: Ideation and Planning
Launching your drone program will require dedicated and tailored planning and consideration. Finding the right partner with resources dedicated to helping your agency develop the proper training programs is key and will help save you both time and money.
Step 2: Acquire Funding
Public safety agencies often experience funding roadblocks when starting a drone program. To follow are a few ideas and strategies to build, launch and receive support for a new public sector drone program.
- Grants –There are a number of grant opportunities available to first responders, with some of these being ongoing programs. Although, in most cases, you may be limited to what airframe you can buy. Certain restrictions include stipulations from government grants which only allow for USA-made drones. If you intend to apply for those types of grants, make sure to check the Blue List for confirmation on authorized gear.
- Transparent Communication –Public sector agencies with experience successfully launching these programs have demonstrated that approaching the community, whether private citizens or local businesses, is beneficial to the sustainability of a drone program. It’s necessary to help the public understand what the program will offer and what it will be used for which may eventually lead to funding opportunities. When the Town of Linn started our drone program, we found a few articles detailing success stories. Other departments shared how they had used drones to find missing persons or a fugitive on the run. We made sure to explain what the purpose of the drone program was and how this equipment would be used with integrity. This transparency built awareness for the program and showed citizens and local businesses that there was a real, tangible benefit to having such technology at hand, even in a small town and in a somewhat rural area.
- Personal and Corporate Donations –When the Town of Linn started our program, we also wrote donation requests to the local community and received help towards the purchase of new equipment. In addition to local community organizations, restaurants and even individual residents, another opportunity for drone program funding is through larger corporate stores such as Target, Walgreens, Walmart, Costco, and others. Many of these corporations have a foundation set for giving back to local communities.
- Additional Funding –Often, as is the case with Town of Linn, the drone program will grow to assist in multiple parts of public service. Drones can be used to inspect rooflines in town buildings; monitor road and bridge conditions; and may help with waterway management projects. Drone programs can also closely partner with local schools to show students how technology is used in law enforcement today. When the Town of Linn began to use the drone program in cross-channel applications, the agency received local donations from area residents and business owners. This, in turn, also helped with public perception of the program as residents saw the overall benefits of these tools.
- Where You Work Can Make a Difference –Some states allow drug forfeiture money to be adopted into a program which will be used to aid in drug prevention programs and equipment. Since drones are widely used for assisting in intel and location of drug interdiction efforts, talk to your local city government officials and court about approval to create or expand your program and to use these funds for equipment.
When the Town of Linn Police Department reviewed work with the board and its citizens, the agency was able to show how it leveraged technology to assist officers to perform their jobs more efficiently and safely. Meanwhile, they increased perception and participation from within the community. With time and investment, your agency can make building and upgrading the drone program a seamless part of your workflow.
Step 3: Choose the Right Hardware
Airframes –Airframes will greatly depend on the type of work you plan to do and the total available program budget. For instance, if your agency’s primary function is search and rescue, and you have at least three or more pilots, you can equip your drone program with at least three small platforms, such as the Autel EVO II Dual or DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced.
Budget constraints are a big reason why we see aircraft like the ANAFI or the Mavic Air getting a lot of use by public safety agencies. While they weren’t originally designed for enterprise or agency use, they’re reliable and less expensive than larger commercial-grade systems, making them more accessible.
Payloads –The payload makes all the difference in finding your target. In search and rescue situations, it can even be the difference between life and death. In most cases, you want a 640 resolution thermal sensor at the minimum. With a limited budget, we recommend choosing the highest quality airframe and investing in your second unit the following year.
- Power and Battery –When it comes to accessories, you cannot go wrong with many spare batteries, as well as additional chargers. Power and battery life are crucial for proper performance. You’ll want the option to charge batteries while out in the field. It is a best practice to always keep at least five batteries per airframe.
- Auxiliary Lighting –Additionally, invest in auxiliary lighting which can be mounted on the drone. Systems including the Fire House or Fox Fury lighting units are a benefit to have onboard. In many situations, especially when providing overwatch on scenes, it assists the ground units by serving as an aerial work light over the scene and allowing staff to be hands-free when necessary. It can also help guide them out of remote areas.
- Constant Charging –Avoid having to ground your unit because of low battery power. It’s best practice to charge batteries throughout a job, recharging your original battery when you use the spares. Of course, battery charge time is dependent on outside temperatures and the type of battery charger you are using. You want to avoid having to ground your unit because of low battery power.
- Additional Tools –Finally, you can never have too many memory cards, readers or extra connection cables. Keep your controller connected to your table, a good landing pad (or two) and a solid tablet holder. These tools will make your program run smoothly and efficiently.
- Drone Responder Line – TruckVault offers a line of drone command center solutions to help departments integrate drone technology. They offer a variety of drawer systems which secure and store both drones and batteries within the vehicle compartment, keeping them ready for quick deployment. Integrated displays are available for command or operations staff and radio panels help to keep multiple operators in the command loop. Seven different designs are available, ranging from a simple single drawer Magnum height system (serving as a basic secure storage solution) to a full command center equipped with a monitor, power package, radio panel, and pull-out table.
Step 4: Settle on Software
The software you choose is entirely dependent on your end-game. If you are doing accident reconstruction, software such as Pix4D or SkyBrowse are important and should be included in the yearly maintenance budget. For editing photos and videos, having a computer which can keep up with software such as Adobe Photoshop and Premiere is also important. Many gaming computers can handle the job well.
Step 5: Finalize Insurance
In the initial stages of your drone program, talk to your municipality’s insurance company. It’s important to finalize details such as understanding what coverage they offer (whether it’s for hardware and/or personnel), what the deductible is and what happens should they need to investigate an accident.
Should you need to make a claim, companies such as Skywatch offer low monthly payments, include total coverage of all pilots and hardware, as well as flexible deductibles. In many instances, it could be beneficial to have both municipal insurance and an aftermarket insurance.
Step 6: Public Perception and Transparency
As your drone program grows, it’s important to get buy-in from the local community. Educating residents by implementing a school program to showcase drones to students can be a great way to improve public perception of the program. For example, it can be beneficial to show the public how drones help with roadway management projects or how drones take aerial images of roads which need repair. All of this gives residents a different perspective on this public program.
Another great idea could be to put the drones on display at every local fair and expo in order to show residents what the program does. Look at every opportunity to demonstrate the capabilities of the drone program and how it’s an important tool. Consider utilizing the drone program for other local needs – a search for a lost pet or to take aerial images of a Scout troop. These positive experiences for your department and the community can also serve as a good training experience for the team.
Step 7: Measure Success of the Program
The first time your drone program helps find a missing person, identify a road issue or aids in infrastructure repair, the drone program has already proven its value. In the dynamic environment of emergency operations, any time the drone can mitigate the human risk factor counts as a success. After you demonstrate the value of the program to the community, the more help you will receive with program acceptance and future potential donations.
Chief James Bushey currently serves as the Director of Technical Specialists at Adorama. Bushey has been an officer with the Town of Linn, Wisconsin, since 2006 and is the Town’s Emergency Management Coordinator, the police department’s media contact, an evidence technician, certified D.A.R.E. officer, and drone operator. Since 2008, he has been the school liaison for Traver and Reek Schools in the Town of Linn.
Helpful Links and Resources for Funding a Drone Program
Here is a select list of resources to help you find an opportunity which best suits your requirements.
FAA’s Funding Opportunities
- Aviation Workforce Development Grants (https://tinyurl.com/yc5ww66d) –grants to academic institutions and the aviation community to help prepare a more inclusive talent pool of pilots and aviation maintenance technicians
- Aviation Research Grants (https://tinyurl.com/34udp9fk) – grants and cooperative agreements ranging from several thousand to several million dollars to support aviation-related research in emerging aviation technologies
- FAA Centers of Excellence (https://tinyurl.com/2dsajphd) – funding to six competitively selected “Centers of Excellence” which are academic institutions and their industry affiliates
- SE2020/2025 (https://tinyurl.com/ya2w9uaf) – an IDIQ-based contract centered around research, analysis, systems engineering, and integration for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) and non-NextGen initiatives
- Police Grants Help (PoliceOne.com) (https://tinyurl.com/msv29x6s) – This resource allows police departments to search federal, state, foundation, and corporate grants available to your community, along with tracking and submitting grant applications.
- The Office of Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS) (https://cops.usdoj.gov/) – COPS is a leading community policing expert at the US Department of Justice and has invested over $14 billion in community policing since Congress established the office in 1994.
- First Responder Grants (https://tinyurl.com/4e6npkaf) – This resource helps public safety agencies or first responder organizations locate, develop, apply, and win supplemental grant funding from federal, state, local, private, and corporate funding resources involved in homeland defense.
Public Safety Grants
- EMS Grants Help (EMS1.com) (https://tinyurl.com/4cu3t74s) – This resource allows emergency services to search federal, state, foundation, and corporate grants available to your community, along with tracking and submitting grant applications.
- National Institute of Justice (https://nij.ojp.gov/funding) – The NIJ awards grants and cooperative agreements for various research, development and evaluation projects and fellowship programs through competitive solicitations.
- Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Program (https://tinyurl.com/239szpjn) – The Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Program assists high threat, high-density urban areas in efforts to build and sustain the capabilities necessary to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from acts of terrorism.
Additional Grants and Funding Options
- Homeland Security Funding: Homeland Security funding is currently the most widely used grant source for police drones. If your equipment will be used for search and rescue, crowd monitoring, bomb investigation, or domestic or international terrorism events that threaten your community, you can apply for Homeland Security Grants at https://tinyurl.com/bdf88nub
- Byrne Justice Assistance Grants: Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) (https://tinyurl.com/2p8tvxd9) are the largest sources of grant funding to support law enforcement equipment and training. Many local municipalities across the country receive a local JAG allocation (https://tinyurl.com/2brmz6jr) directly from the federal government based on their share of their state’s three year violent crime average.
- Federal Highway Traffic Safety Grants: Are you planning to use the drone for accident investigations? Then, your state’s highway traffic safety funds would be a great source. Federal dollars are passed down to states through the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (https://tinyurl.com/2p8xn8ef).
- HIDTA and Project Safe Neighborhood Funding: Is your agency part of a multiagency task force in a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) (https://tinyurl.com/4s5dy32s) or Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) (https://tinyurl.com/9j4bbm82) district? If so, drones can be a valuable asset in your drug interdiction and violent crime reduction strategy.
- Corporate and Private Foundations: Most large corporations across the U.S. have foundations or “giving programs” offering grants or donations based on their established priorities. Often, the priority is supporting the community where they are located.
- Asset Forfeiture Funds: Many police agencies are using asset forfeiture dollars to support drone equipment, accessories and training. Speak with your department leadership and encourage them to consider allocating dollars from this fund to cover your purchase.
- Final Tip – Know Your Grant Restrictions: Some federal grant programs list drones under the “controlled equipment” category and place certain restrictions on using federal funding to cover the purchase. The restrictions have been lifted or relaxed in the last year, but understand and follow the new guidelines set out by FEMA and the Bureau of Justice Assistance when using these grant sources for your purchase.
LOKI Mk2: Purpose Built for Tactical Missions
Designed in collaboration with some of the world’s top counterterrorism teams and produced by NATO allies, the Sky-Hero LOKI Mk2 Tactical sUAS is purpose-built for tactical operations. Singled out by a panel of experts for its contribution to the homeland security industry, the LOKI was recently honored with a prestigious Innovation Award at Milipol Paris 2021.
Capable of autonomous hovering and able to operate in complete darkness,
LOKI is built to self-stabilize and hold its position in the air without the need for flight control input. This allows the operator to focus on searching and scouting without having to worry about flying an unstable drone. LOKI also features a highly sensitive day/night + IR camera which seamlessly transitions from bright light to complete darkness and allows for visibility in zero light. Its front and bottom selectable and dimmable IR LEDs ensure complete visual clarity regardless of lighting conditions, while its onboard HD microphone captures sound in any environment.
The exterior of the LOKI Mk2 is purpose-built to withstand the full contact nature of indoor flight. In the event of a crash, it has the ability to self-right in all four directions and its ruggedized system allows it to withstand crashes without interruptions in signal or operational capabilities. The LOKI Mk2 features a user repairable design for manageable parts replacement or repair and comes equipped with an extended battery which provides 16 minutes of flight and up to six hours of video and sound transmission while perched.
Due to the austere nature of many tactical operations, LOKI is built to operate in a completely denied environment. It does not require GPS, cellular service, Wi-Fi, or any other external service to operate. This allows LOKI to operate underground, in high-rise buildings, tunnels and in other extremely remote locations where a lack of internet service or poor cellular service would deny other drones the ability to fly. An analog-based communications system provides ultralow latency which prevents lagging, ensuring real-time intelligence relay to operators as well as complete accuracy in flight. The LOKI Mk2 also protects operational security by not recording onboard video or images, preventing data security loss in the case of drone loss or capture. Secondary viewers can stream real-time footage while the encrypted video feature eliminates concerns of signal interception.
The LOKI Mk2 is likely the most readily deployable drone on the market with a ground-to-air deployment time measured in seconds – not minutes or hours. It is ideal for rapid and surreptitious deployment and is able to be hand launched, even from a moving vehicle. LOKI Mk2 is operated through a custom-built, stand-alone ground controller which can operate four devices simultaneously. Like the sUAS, the controller requires no GPS, Wi-Fi or cellular service to function. The LOKI Mk2 can also carry an array of tactical payloads, from alternative cameras to diversionary devices, light and laser packages, and breaching payloads.
All of the LOKI Mk2’s capabilities were designed with a singular goal in mind: to protect operator safety. When the LOKI Mk2 is serving as a scout, team members aren’t forced to make the tough decision to enter a potentially hazardous site, such as an attic, basement, vehicle, or building with a barricaded suspect or other threat. The drone acts as a powerful de-escalation tool, allowing operators to avoid potentially lethal confrontations by providing real-time and accurate scouting without risk to the stack.
Since its release, the LOKI Mk2 has enhanced the operations of over 1,000 teams across six continents, 47 US states and all ten Canadian provinces. This includes some of the top counterterrorism units in the world. A tactical drone team leader described LOKI as follows: “The best thing about LOKI Mk2 is [that] it just works. In any environment or any circumstance, LOKI can get our team the information we need. It can be up and flying in seconds, and it can fly anywhere.”
LOKI Mk2 requires minimal training and is usually operational for a new team with just a few hours of practice. Even for more experienced pilots of the LOKI
Mk2, the drone consistently pushes the limits of what a sUAS can accomplish. It can fly into locations and circumstances which are almost impossible for other drones, such as suspended ceilings, attics, under furniture, and into pipes and crawl spaces.
Because LOKI is designed to operate “in the stack,” Sky-Hero has partnered with
AARDVARK and PROJECT7 to develop a series of LOKI accessories which promote mission integration, including a backpack system, wrist viewer gauntlet and vest mounted GCS carriage system. The Project7 ILB-LOKI pack has made the LOKI Mk2 more portable than any drone before it, housing two LOKIs, ten batteries, a GCS, battery chargers, spare parts, and more – all on the operator’s back.
The LOKI Mk2 is advancing indoor and close quarter scouting tactics for units everywhere. Visit loki.aardvarktactical.com for more information.