Louisville Wants to Deploy Drones to Respond to Gunshots

The city has applied for a government program that would allow it to use drones to collect video footage in areas that its ShotSpotter sensors detect gunshots.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The city says it plans to become the first in the United States to deploy autonomous drones to respond to detected gunfire after applying for a special program the Federal Aviation Administration is running, according to GovTech.

The UAS Integration Pilot Program is “an opportunity for state, local, and tribal governments to partner with private sector entities, such as UAS operators or manufacturers, to accelerate safe UAS integration.”

The program would essentially give cities temporary permission to get around long-standing drone rules in order to run pilot projects. Those rules include flying drones outside the operator’s line of sight, flying at night and flying above people, according to the program’s FAQ page.

The city would use the drones in conjunction with its ShotSpotter sensors, which pick up potential sounds of gunfire, analyzes them and sends a notice to police if believed to be an actual gunshot.

If the city has its way, self-routing drones would be deployed after a gunshot is detected and record video evidence to help authorities find the person who fired the weapon.

The drones would be able to arrive to the scene quicker than a police officer and in the case of a false alarm, prevent valuable law enforcement time from being wasted.

GovTech broke down how the program would work:

The pilot, if approved, is likely to be limited in scope to start off with. The city would be looking for a few parts of town without a lot of flight path obstructions or restrictions, and it would set up geofencing to limit the drones to those parts of town. It would need to purchase new autonomous drones; the fire department already uses manual drones under more restricted conditions, but those wouldn’t suit the needs of the project.

“Our goal is to test the theory and see if this is an effective use case of the technology,” said Chris Seidt, Louisville’s director of information technology. “We’re not looking to go immediately into production and deploy hundreds of drones across the community.”

The drones would probably have video cameras, which would turn on the moment they launch to respond to a gunshot report and stay on until they return, and maybe equipment to detect heat signatures at night. They would have manual control for emergencies, but mostly they would rely on software to guide them — at predetermined elevations — to the location of gunshots.

And the drones wouldn’t follow people, cars or other objects. That capability exists within autonomous drones, but for now Seidt said it’s not part of the city’s plans. Remote operators would have the ability to maneuver the cameras in order to capture more footage of something.

From ShotSpotter’s perspective, the idea is pretty straightforward.

“We send an XML digital alert to a system that can ingest it, and then the heavy lifting is done by an (unmanned aerial vehicle) system that can take a specific lat and long from our system and then do the … work to get a drone to get from wherever it takes off to that alert,” said Ralph Clark, chief executive officer of ShotSpotter.

Clark said he’s only heard of one other group that wanted to use autonomous drones to respond to ShotSpotter, and that was in South Africa where a customer wanted to use them to try to catch rhino poachers. While the idea of using drones to respond to ShotSpotter is new in the U.S. — none of the sources interviewed for this story had heard of similar programs — the idea of people using technology to respond to the system is not. According to Clark, some of the company’s customers have hooked the system up to surveillance cameras that are able to pan, tilt and zoom to focus on the location of a gunshot.

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