Q: What makes you an expert in UAV training for Public Safety?
Michael Rogers (MR): I have had a nearly 27 year career in public safety at the local and federal level. In my federal law enforcement career I had assignments in physical surveillance programs, SWAT, manned aviation, and unmanned systems programs. In 2014, I was assigned to aviation headquarters as the Program Manager of a new UAV program within the FBI, and with a small team built that program into a much larger and more capable UAV program. We had a limited budget as a new program and had to work through all of the issues that face any public safety agency trying to integrate a new technology into their toolkit. I was fortunate to represent a larger agency, and meet many of the leading teams in this UAV space at the time. Ultimately, I participated in several working groups and organizational committees tasked with building the best practices and standards for public safety UAV programs. I have designed administrative and training programs, flown operationally on hundreds of manned aircraft and UAV missions, and help develop standards and procedures for public safety UAV operations. The range of operational experiences I had have allowed me to set a realistic vision for integrating UAVs into those response programs that make sense and add value. I feel purpose in being able to pass this base of knowledge on to fellow responders and help bring their programs to a common and professional level without wasting months or years making the mistakes that we all were making 4 or 5 years ago. There are many people out there teaching “what they’ve heard”, but few who have experienced the range of operational challenges as instructional staff members here at Skyfire.
Q: What have your years of experience with UAV training taught you?
MR: My career has taught me that building a new technology into any agency is challenging. It seems like an easy task onboarding UAVs because they are small and relatively inexpensive. What you find is that the FAA sees these vehicles as aircraft when flown in support of public safety. The public can find them threatening when there is a lack of engagement. Teams are skeptical of these tools until they prove their value. UAVs are good tools to capture information and gain situational awareness. They are not a cheap replacement for existing tools such as robots, helicopters, etc. They are flexible tools that will bring safety and efficiency to existing agency tasks and personnel, and are worth the investment when used properly.
Lately we are seeing a strong surge in companies making sensors, software, and UAVs for our mission types, including in the US, and they will only get better and more useful. They are less an aircraft and more of a technical bridge between aviation and ground based tools. The longer agencies delay integrating the technology, the further behind they will be with each new advance in capability.
Q: What are the top benefits to having a successful UAV program as a resource?
MR: UAVs can effectively support agencies in countless ways, but importantly they make many public safety missions less dangerous and more efficient. Missions such as sending a UAV indoors prior to sending people on a tactical search or arrest operation, sending a small drone into a confined space, or unstable structure before we send our firefighters in, can make them safer, and more efficient when they do have to make the entry. Advances in thermal and video technology make finding people and heat sources much quicker and that saves energy and personnel resources. A UAV can clear a very large open field at night in minutes, which would have taken a search party an hour, so they can focus the resources where they need, and rule out areas where UAVs have cleared. Evidentiary flights, such as in reconstruction, can bring centimeter accuracy to a worksite and cut road closure time by minutes if not hours. Drones as first responders can give immediate awareness to decision makers prior to the first units arriving at an uncertain call.
Done professionally, they will make an agency safer, more effective, and be worth their investment.
Q: Could you talk about a mission that wouldn’t have been possible without UAV?
MR: There are many missions where deploying UAVs made for a much better outcome. Time and again we were using UAV teams to overwatch fixed locations on high risk events that we couldn’t otherwise get close to without compromising or risking our people. SWAT tactics for instance have slowed in recent years because of changes in the behavior of subjects who barricade themselves in structures. There are many scenarios where putting the technology in first, dog second, and human last has resulted in a non-violent resolution for these dangerous responses. Also the perspective of UAV in searches and situational awareness is duplicated only by an aircraft. Aircraft are limited by weather and ground clutter more so than UAV are, giving agencies the advantages of an aircraft, capable of flying below weather, with some better maneuverability and lower risk, in matters like search, rescue, disaster response, and infrastructure capture.
Q: What tips do you have for anyone thinking about starting a UAV program?
Make a thorough assessment of what your agency missions are, and where can UAV technology add value. Select a UAV, sensor, and software that fits the need. Consult with other agencies or industry partners prior to purchasing the UAV in order to get the right tool. Decide if your jurisdiction will benefit from traditional UAV teams, or a larger agency Drone as a First Responder (DFR).
Engage early with executive management and jurisdictional leaders to reach out to the community and help them understand the safety and efficiency values of unmanned systems, and determine limitations that are definable in how they will be utilized.
Develop a training program, COA process, and Standard Operating Procedures document early, and consistently improve and refine those as the program grows.
Include software and video management into the program cost. These can quickly outpace the cost of the UAVs themselves.
Don’t be afraid to reach outside the organization. You “don’t know what you don’t know”, and there is someone out there who already went through this, so you can avoid the large speed bumps.
More about Rogers:
Rogers recently retired from a 22-year career as an FBI Special Agent, where he managed and grew the Bureau’s UAS program, and directed both equipment selection, training programs, and operational deployments. Rogers is a United States Air Force and Law Enforcement veteran with nearly 30 years of experience, serving in roles such as Field Training Officer, investigative Special Agent, SWAT team operator, Sniper/Observer, Pilot in Command, Surveillance Team Leader, and Aviation Program Manager. He also has more than 5,000 hours as a manned aircraft pilot in command.