PULLMAN – As soon as this fall, it won’t be a bird or a plane – or even Superman – roaming Pullman’s skies.
It will be a flying camera.
The Pullman Police Department is collaborating with Washington State University on developing a drone usage program for the law enforcement agency. The aerial robots will likely start out simple, said Matthew E. Taylor, assistant professor at WSU and consultant to the Pullman police on the project.
“People often get scared – maybe with or without justification – about robots in the sky,” Taylor said. “We want to make sure that what we’re doing is as transparent as possible.”
The police and the university began collaborating late last year, with Taylor offering his consultation services for free “because this is cool,” he said. He runs a robotics lab that focuses on teaching the machines to do useful, practical tasks.
“We thought this was a great opportunity to try to help,” Taylor said.
For the Pullman police, practical tasks a drone could execute would likely include traffic control and crowd measurement. Taylor said those tasks require vision processing, which uses artificial intelligence to recognize and count cars or people.
In those cases, the drone would collect the data, and a separate program would analyze it for the police.
“We want it to be as automated as possible because we want to help them and provide extra information, not just have a new burden for them to worry about,” Taylor said.
The flying cameras could also be used during the first winter storm of the year, when multiple car accidents can occur at once. A thermal imaging camera attached to a drone would also help find bodies, aiding in the search for people who have passed out or gone missing.
“All of these would save man hours,” said Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins.
Other possible drone uses include documenting outdoor crime scenes, assisting the fire department in assessing fires and assisting the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office with search and rescue missions.
The police chief is also interested in eventually using drones when Special Weapons and Tactics teams are deployed. Taylor said that task may be possible in five to 10 years, when drones could be able to follow people around.
“The nice thing about drones is that, if you look over the last few years, the capabilities have been increasing rapidly and the cost has been decreasing,” Taylor said.
The Pullman Police Department, along with Taylor, will hold public meetings with both WSU and the community at large to discuss what the drones will and won’t be used for, and to hear ideas and concerns from citizens. The meetings will take place this spring, but dates have not yet been set.
Taylor said there are a number of misconceptions about drones, including the notions that they’re not regulated or that they’re used to spy on people. Both Taylor and Jenkins want to make sure the privacy of citizens is protected.
“We don’t intend to use it as a surveillance tool to follow people around, or use it to harass or discriminate against anyone, or to invade someone’s area where they have an expectation of privacy,” Jenkins said. “We want a policy that will guard against that.”
After getting public input, the police department will work to develop a drone program in accordance with local laws and Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Jenkins said he has a sergeant and officers interested in administering the coming drone program.
Pullman police will then decide what drone to buy to meet their needs. So far, Taylor has been looking at drones that range from $1,000 to $5,000 in cost. The police department has budgeted about $9,500 for the purchase of a drone, Jenkins said.
It’s all part of the Pullman Police Department’s continual effort to be more effective, especially with technology, Jenkins said.
“We’ve been involved in looking for new tools to help our officers and to do a better job,” he said.