US police combine drones with Zoom for real-time response


An Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) tethered to a truck hovers near the US Capitol during a test conducted by the US Capitol Police on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Oceanside Fire Department was the first agency in the city to use Zoom with drones and suggested that their police counterparts try it out. — AP

For law enforcement missions, drones bring the undeniable advantage of letting an officer see what a bird can see. Whether for search and rescue or suspect apprehension, the perspective a drone grants to human eyes can mean the difference between a life preserved and a life extinguished.

The beach team officers in Oceanside, California, grasped this advantage early on when they began using drones to locate missing children.

“They realised that if they were to have a drone as opposed to riding around in the sand trying to find a kid... (t)hey could generally very quickly identify where the kid was and be able to reunite them with their families,” said Jack Reed, a sergeant and drone program supervisor with the Oceanside Police Department.

But getting a drone’s perspective – its video feed – to the right officer isn’t simple. Reed said his department once used a VideoLAN Client (VLC) player-based app that could, in theory, allow a live drone feed to be shared across smartphones.

When a lot of people logged onto that app, however, lag would often defeat the purpose of being able to receive the feed. In other cases, an important officer couldn’t get the video they needed during a SWAT operation.

“We’ve had a number of missions where they were looking for overhead intelligence as they were approaching a target,” Reed recounted. “The SWAT commander was unable to pull up the feed for some unknown reason. I don’t know exactly what the technical problem was that caused that. But we were having that problem frequently enough that we were looking for another option.”

Enter Zoom, the video-conferencing tool that the world became so familiar with during the pandemic. The Oceanside Fire Department was the first agency in the city to use Zoom with drones and suggested that their police counterparts try it out.

It turned out to be an elegant solution for Reed’s team, which was already acquainted with Zoom.

“We use a screen-share feature like if you were going to be giving a presentation on a Zoom meeting, and then we share the screen generally from the phone that we’re using to fly the drone, log into the Zoom meeting and launch it,” Reed explained. “We send usually a text out on an app that lets everybody know that the meeting is live. With our account, we basically have the same Zoom meeting and password so that we can all quickly log in.”

Reed then shared how Zoom helped make a dangerous SWAT situation a success. The department needed to catch an individual who had stabbed someone in an apartment complex. Holed up in an apartment, the individual still had the knife.

“Obviously, to send a team in against an armed suspect, there’s a dramatic likelihood that that person would try to stab those officers,” Reed said. “That type of encounter could have led to a shooting... One of the things that we decided to do was to perch a drone on a balcony where they could see between the vertical louvers of the apartment of this particular suspect and see what they could see. See if he was still armed, see what his actions were, see if he was agitated, and use that information so that the SWAT team could make decisions based on what we were seeing. And the Zoom platform gave us the ability to do that.”

As effective as Zoom has been compared to the VLC option, there’s still an issue that Oceanside would like to see addressed. Let’s say the department sends out three drones to get different perspectives on a scene. Currently, there’s no way to share all three of those live feeds at the same time.

The department is now working with both Zoom and The Unmanned Advantage, which is led by Jorge Alcazar, to develop a way to share multiple drone video feeds. At the moment, they’re calling the tool Zoom Rooms C2 (command and control).

“The command element will be able to see all three videos at the same time, and it doesn’t take over the screen completely,” Alcazar said about the upcoming solution.

Reed emphasised that when it comes to drones, officers may not have great technical knowledge. Though he is a supervisor for a drone programme, Reed admitted, “I’m not a drone person.” For this reason, it can be crucial for departments to seek expertise from organisations that can focus on technology like drones.

“It’s just not slowing down,” Alcazar said about the drone market. “Staying dynamic and staying current... is difficult because it’s almost like a collateral duty for them (police) to fly drones.” – Governing/Tribune News Service

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