Police-operated drones in Southern California have been given permission for broader operation, allowing them to fly beyond where operators can see them.

The Chula Vista Police Department has been granted a “certificate of authorization” by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly drones “beyond visual line of sight,” (BVLOS), opening the door for the expanded use of drones in public safety and emergency response.

“It helps to protect citizens, and helps to protect suspects. If we have better information going into a call, we can use the best tactics and hopefully de-escalate and have better outcomes,” said Capt. Vern Sallee, head of the patrol operations division at the department and leader of the Drone as a First Responder Operations program.

The police department began exploring the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAVs) in 2015. After a number of community and other meetings to establish regulations and rules around the technology, the department launched UAVs as first responders. They were only allowed to be operated in an area about one mile from the pilot.

“It’s a major regulatory win. It’s something that we’re very proud of,” said Kabe Termes, director of business operations at Cape Aerial Telepresence, the company providing the cloud platform that supports video streaming from the drone.

The relaxation of the rules allows them to fly three nautical miles from the pilot, said Termes.

To be clear, department regulations stipulate the drones can only be used as a first responder to emergency calls and cannot be used for patrolling or any sort of surveillance operations, said Sallee.

“In the police world, surveillance is a legitimate concern of a lot of people, and so for us, it was important to make sure that we address the fact that we’re not using drones to peek into people's houses without a warrant, or that we would just randomly patrol and look into backyards,” he added.

Since October 2018, drones have been sent on some 300 flights and logged more than 80 hours of flight time, say Cape officials. They have aided in more than 40 arrests.

The new certificate of authorization, which took effect March 15, expands the footprint of drone operation. However, the Chula Vista Police Department is still in the process of working through a number of technical and other details before it can graduate to a wider coverage area, said Sallee.

“We have to really wring out those problems, and then other things pop up. We’re extraordinarily cautious as we move forward, so that as we do our first BVLOS flight we want to ensure that, first, the safety of the public is paramount,” said Sallee. “The confidence of the FAA and the public is a huge consideration as we do this.”

The current system requires a person to stand on the roof of the launch building to observe the drone, which is actually being controlled from an operator in the police facilities. While they aren't piloting the drone, they are able to immediately take over the drone if there is an airspace incursion, Sallee explained.

Federal regulations prevent the drones from flying above 400 feet, and UAVs must also weigh no more than 55 pounds. Though flying the devices over crowds is not allowed, Sallee said the department is able to pass over people incidentally while on the way to another location.

This story first appeared in Government Technology, Techwire’s sister publication.