A police drone may soon take to the skies of Sandy Springs, chasing suspects and monitoring city events, if the City Council approves a donation of the device from the city’s IT contractor.
The DJI Mavic Pro drone is an X-shaped device with four propellers. According to company specifications, it’s about a foot long; weighs 1.6 pounds; is equipped with a high-resolution camera; and can fly at speeds near 40 mph and altitudes around 16,000 feet. It can be controlled via a smartphone. The drone is valued at $999.
A city staff memo lists a wide variety of possible public safety and surveillance uses of the drone without naming any particular policy restrictions. Sandy Springs Police Deputy Chief Keith Zgonc said a formal use policy is forthcoming, but he pledged the drone would not be flying over back yards without particular, legally justified purposes.
“We will not be using the drone for patrol of private property,” said Zgonc. “Any surveillance use of the drone will be done in compliance with the constitutions of the U.S. and Georgia, and we will follow FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] regulations.”
“We are currently working on a policy regarding use of the drone,” said Zgonc, adding that only trained officers would be able to operate it. The department is already in the process of getting a “certificate of authorization” from the FAA to fly the drone, he said.
The drone is being offered as a donation from InterDev, a company that provides the city’s IT services under its form of government, which outsources most departments through competitive bidding. InterDev has a corporate donation program focused on public safety and has donated drones and defibrillators to other communities, said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun. InterDev requested City Manager John McDonough’s permission to offer a drone to the police department, Kraun said.
The city’s ethics policy addresses gifts made to city employees, but not to the government as a whole, Kraun said. She noted that the city’s outsourcing contracts are done through bidding in an “extensive procurement process.”
“Our general gift policy does not single out what individuals or groups are able to provide a gift to the city,” Kraun said. “Proposed gifts are considered on a case-by-case basis and require the acceptance by resolution of the City Council, which is conducted in a public forum. In this case, there is a clear public purpose for the item benefiting the community.”
A proposed council resolution to accept the drone says it could be used for “the following purposes, among others: providing aerial surveys of serious injury and fatal crash scenes to assist in diagrams of such scenes; providing photographs and video recordings of crime scenes; assisting in reconnaissance for high risk warrant service; searching for lost people; following suspects on the run; and providing general surveillance of special events in the city.”
The proposed resolution says that other police departments operating in mutual aid agreements with Sandy Springs could also use the drone for those purposes. And Sandy Springs Fire Rescue might also use the drone to survey “fire scenes.”
The proposal to accept the drone goes before the council at its May 16 meeting.
If the drone is accepted, it would join Sandy Springs’ growing fleet of police robots. They include the “Throwbot,” a small device that can be hand-tossed through a building’s door or window, then drive around inside, providing video and audio. The current robots are used by the North Metro SWAT Team, a collaboration of the police forces of Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Johns Creek.