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Police in California are using autonomous drones to track suspects

While this condensed example is a promising use of the technology, civil liberty groups are concerned.

Police using skydio drone
Image: Skydio

Drones continue to insert themselves into our lives, from personal hobbies to ways to deliver packages, but one obvious use-case for high-tech drones is in law enforcement. Now, a new report in The New York Times takes a front-seat look at what that could mean in the future.

According to the report, police in Chula Vista, California used a drone to track a suspect that they were unable to keep up with through traditional means. Using a drone, the department tracked a man with a gun and bag of heroin through traffic, around obstacles, and even through a shopping mall that the man fled to. The suspect dumped the gun and heroin, with the drone capturing all of it. Then, when fleeing, he ducked in a shopping mall and emerged on the other side. The drone captured it all.

This isn’t a single occurrence either. The report notes that this police department uses drones about 15 times per day on average. It’s part of the department’s Drone as First Responder program. It received approval for this project back in July.

Drones have been used in policing for years, but it was all very manual. Drive to where you need to be. Launch the drone and pilot it. But new updates to drone technology, have automated much of the process.

There are some positives to using drones. For one, during the current pandemic, it can help limit exposure. There could also be benefits for drone use, as it can be a cheaper alternative. With many people calling for budget cuts to police departments across the country, drone monitoring could help.

While this condensed example is a promising use of the technology, civil liberty groups are concerned about what it could mean for the future.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology, tells The Times, “Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection. Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.”

What do you think? How do you feel about police using drones? Let us know down below in the comments or carry the discussion over to our Twitter or Facebook.

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Disclosure: Skydio was a past client of EZPR, a media relations firm where Kevin, KnowTechie’s editor-in-chief, holds a position. However, he did not participate in this post’s writing, editing, or publishing. He remains unbiased and independent in his role at KnowTechie.

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