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Ten Reasons Why First Responders Aren’t Buying UAVs

@Tony_Hallett, CEO, Unmanned Response

Spurred by military spending during the Second Gulf War, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market has experienced sensational growth. As the conflict subsided, manufacturers turned their attention to the domestic market. A March 2013 industry report concludes “… agriculture and public safety are the most promising markets” for UAVs, estimating a $13.6 billion economic impact and the creation of 70,000 new jobs in the first three years.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for the safe integration of UAVs into national airspace by September of 2015 as set forth in sections 334-336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The Act includes an exception that allows public safety agencies to immediately utilize UAVs if granted a two-year Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA.

UAVs are remarkable tools that can assist first responders with a wide range of tasks. Yet, the latest data from the FAA show only 25 out of more than 65,000 state and local police, fire, and EMS agencies have applied for a COA. Why aren’t first responders integrating UAVs into their operations? At least ten clear reasons emerge:

FAA REQUIREMENTS. First responders who want to start a UAV program must navigate a complex, confusing, expensive, time-consuming, frustrating process to even apply for FAA approval. (Just finding a comprehensive list of requirements is challenging.) After spending considerable time and money, the COA application might be denied. If approved, it’s only for a two-year period.

VOLATILE LEGISLATIVE ENVIRONMENT. The image of UAVs has been badly tainted in the media resulting in a contemptuous attack on the integrity of the law enforcement profession. Irresponsible overreaction by several lawmakers (and at least one city mayor) shows that political understanding and support are fragile. Why buy a UAV today when your state legislature might ban it next week?

LATE ADOPTERS. First responders are neither impulse buyers nor early adopters of technology as evidenced by the dependence on legacy systems. Consider this: If a child takes a cell phone picture of a creepy stalker, most 911 centers do not have the technology in place to receive the photo.

KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE. Most first responders are not familiar with the capabilities, options, and features of unmanned systems. There does not appear to be any UAV orientation embedded in academic curriculum or public safety training centers. Media coverage provides little substance. The only in-person exposure for most first responders is at crowded exhibit booths during conferences. While these encounters spark a novelty interest, they do not adequately demonstrate the capabilities or value of UAVs.

STANDARDS. Most public safety agencies (especially fire departments) deploy resources that conform to applicable performance, licensure, or accreditation standards. Moreover, agencies will need to adjust existing protocol to accommodate UAVs. Until unmanned systems are fully integrated into external standards and internal policies and procedures, they won’t be widely integrated into first responder operations.

RELIABILITY. There are five characteristics of any new technology that concern first responders: (1) It is more complex to operate than promised; (2) it can be hacked or virus infected; (3) the company that sold it won’t be around within six months; (4) it will malfunction/break in unimaginable ways within seven months; and (5) it will be obsolete within eight months.

LIABILITY. Public safety agencies will not introduce an “unknown” factor into time-tested emergency response protocols. The UAV failure (crash) rate is dramatically higher than for manned aircraft, a fact not lost on public safety risk managers.

PERSONNEL. Small public safety agencies will likely rely on innovators from within the ranks to launch UAV programs. What happens if the innovator leaves the department? Many large agencies must navigate personnel issues such as union work rules, assignment bidding, and reassignment of manpower.

SUPPORT NETWORK. First responders who see the value of UAVs have limited opportunities to share ideas, information, and insight with other public safety professionals who are operating or interested in unmanned systems.

COST. Most first responders have no experience with UAVs and, therefore, no reference point for costs such as RFP preparation, acquisition, training, insurance, staffing, transporting, operations, maintenance, and certifications. Since first responders are unfamiliar with costs and benefits, they are unable to conduct a realistic cost-benefit analysis.

The implication for first responders is disheartening. UAVs could have an immediate and dramatic impact on public safety training, planning, responses, rescues, and investigations. Polls show overwhelming public support for the use of UAVs by first responders. Sadly, because of the reasons above, few communities in the United States will benefit from this marvelous technology in the foreseeable future.

The implication for the unmanned systems industry is alarming. Several market research reports have painted an optimistic multi-billion dollar picture for the years ahead. However, the fact that only 25 of the 65,000 potential (public safety) customers in the U.S. have applied for a COA is telling. Underperformance in the public safety market may be an omen of similar challenges that lie ahead in commercial markets.

The integration of UAVs into the public safety market is being closely watched by many stakeholders. So far, there’s not much to see.