Public-safety drone use soars as White House mulls ban for federal agencies

While a planned executive order would ban federal agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones, state and local public safety agencies are becoming increasingly dependent on them.

Agencies’ use of foreign-made drones may get harder as the Trump administration looks to ban the U.S. government from buying drones made in China or with Chinese parts. The Interior Department grounded such drones in October, and on March 11, TechCrunch reported that an executive order is in the works that would ban federal departments and agencies from buying or using foreign-made drones because of national security concerns. Additionally, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would bar agencies from buying drones made in China.

Some federal agencies are concerned about what that will mean for their operations. The Chinese firm DJI is the leading manufacturer, with 70% of the market share. “The Agriculture Department, which uses drones to survey farmland, for example, said [the ban] could limit the ability ‘to carry out our mission-crucial work’ and ‘halt’ the Forest Service’s use of drones altogether,” according to a New York Times article.

State and local government agencies are also increasingly dependent on drones. Since 2014, the number of U.S. public-safety agencies with drones has risen from almost none to more than 1,500, the vast majority of which deploy devices made by DJI, according to a new report.

The majority of drones that public-safety agencies operate are consumer or prosumer models, with the most common type being Chinese-made DJI Phantom models, which 336 agencies use. Three other DJI models -- Inspire, Mavic and Matrice -- follow at 291, 246 and 226 agencies, respectively. After that, the numbers fall considerably. For instance, the Yuneec Typhoon is the fifth-most-used model but is at only 34 agencies, according to the report, “Public Safety Drones, 3rd Edition.”

Specifically, 1,578 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency services agencies are believed to have acquired drones, according to a March report from the Public Safety Drones project at the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. The total number of drones at these agencies is 2,826, and the average number of drones per agency is 3.9, based on those agencies with more than one drone recorded, states the report. Twenty agencies have 10 or more drones.

Seventy percent of disclosed public-safety agencies with drones are in law enforcement, the report states. On average, state law enforcement agencies have 10.6 drones per agency, county sheriff’s offices have four, municipal police departments have 3.2, and fire and rescue have three.

The states with the most drones are California, with 140, and Texas, with 115. Illinois rounds out the top three with 76.

Since the center published its last study in May 2018, the total number of counties with at least one agency that has drones has risen 45% to 899. Counties with two or more agencies that own drones is 289, up 90% from 2018. Overall, more than 500 disclosed public-safety agencies acquired drones in the past two years.

The drone center report found that at agencies for which data was available, 118 acquired their drones through donations, 80 through grants, and 53 through seizures, forfeits or other funds. Only 32 had budgeted for them.

Founded in 2012, the center hosts an initiative to track local, state and federal public-safety agencies that own drones for operational use. It says its database is the only comprehensive open-access tally of publicly disclosed public-safety agencies that are reported to own at least one drone. The database does not include agencies with undisclosed drone programs or federal agencies and therefore does not reflect the total number of U.S. public-safety agencies with drones in the U.S. Additionally, it does not include agencies that use drones owned by other entities or private citizens.

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