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Council Perspective: New type of emergency responder joining Public Safety

Unmanned Aerial System - CopyBy Mayor Anne Burt

The Woodbury Public Safety Department is welcoming a new kind of emergency responder to its team. At our Jan. 27 meeting, the City Council approved the purchase of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) for emergency response purposes.

A UAS is an unmanned aircraft that is controlled remotely without a pilot on board. Instead, a certified pilot on the ground operates the device.

There are many benefits of using an UAS in public safety. Public Safety officials can quickly deploy them in search and rescue situations or use them to capture a comprehensive view of natural disasters, fire scenes, and crash and crime scene investigations. Police also can use it, in limited cases, to service warrants. Other city departments will also be able to use the device for tasks such as infrastructure inspections. 

UAS improves emergency response
Responding to certain types of incidents from the air increases the probability of success and can reduce the number of personnel needed on the ground. 

We currently rely on outside resources f0r air support, primarily through the Minnesota State Patrol helicopter, the Washington County UAS, and other mutual aid relationships in the county. While these partnerships are effective, the additional drive and flight times often take longer to get eyes in the sky, delaying our response. In addition, we cannot solely rely on another agency to provide this type of support all of the time. 

Throughout the year, our public safety team responds to situations where a UAS could play a critical role, such as locating lost persons or fleeing suspects, or gaining the scope of a grass fire. These incidents often occur in or around difficult terrain, where the UAS can cover an area much more efficiently than a responder on the ground can. Applications like this can help save lives, save time and protect property.  

We will not be using the UAS to conduct random patrols of the city from the sky. We are following state law and Federal Aviation Administration rules in implementing this program, just like our neighboring communities with similar programs. There are privacy restrictions in the state law about using this technology in residential areas and they are more restrictive for these devices than for similar Google Streetview technology. 

When our new UAS is needed in Public Safety, an officer will request the resource and a certified pilot and/or a supervisor will be consulted to determine if use of the UAS is appropriate. 

This is a cost-effective way to enhance emergency response. No new staff positions were added to support the program. Two current police officers have been certified as pilots, and we hope to certify and train at least five more officers as we move ahead. In terms of cost, the UAS purchase price was $39,000. There will be nominal upkeep costs (i.e., battery maintenance), which we will have a better understanding of once the program is up and running for a while. We are also looking into software to aid in flight logging and data management, but do not expect that to exceed a few thousand dollars. It should be noted, however, that one UAS operator could replace several people searching on the ground. 

 A department member will serve as the UAS program coordinator and will be responsible for the management of the UAS program. The program coordinator will ensure that our procedures conform to current laws, regulations and best practices. Notification of use and operation will be recorded, reported to the state annually and be included with the department performance measures.

About the technology
We have a commercial quality unit that allows up to 55 minutes of flight time on a single charge. Compared to hobby-level devices, Woodbury's UAS can carry more weight (i.e., a high-quality camera that includes thermal imaging), features improved resistance to weather elements such as wind and temperature, and allows for creating flight plans. It also has cameras and sensors to allow for live mission recording.

Public input
State law requires government entities to provide an opportunity for public comment related to UAS purchase and policy. We solicited for this input in December and received some comments from the community related to privacy, data retention, use/deployment, cost, public notification, and training and partnerships. Public Safety staff and the City Council are reviewing the feedback from the public and will determine if additional changes are merited.

We are always looking for means to enhance the safety of our residents as well as our staff. The addition of the new UAS emergency responder is an excellent example of this effort. I am confident its deployment will help us more efficiently protect our community. 

View the UAS Policy