DC launches drone program, new police helicopter

DC launches drone program, new police helicopter

D.C.’s mayor and police chief believe a key to “driving down crime” involves new airborne technology, which was unveiled Monday morning.

The District’s new $6.2 million Airbus H-125 helicopter took a test flight from the D.C. police heliport, a few hundred yards from Audi Field, in Southwest.

“It’s a much needed replacement to our current helicopter,” said Mayor Muriel Bowser during a news conference in a hanger at the heliport.

The new helicopter, dubbed Falcon 1, which boasts superior speed, agility and fuel consumption, will replace the previous copter, which was about 20 years old, according to Police Chief Pamela Smith.

The District plans to trade-in the previous Falcon 1.

During the news conference, the District’s second helicopter, Falcon 2, sat in the hangar.

“Our helicopters play a key role in responding to crime and being able to quickly and safely pursue suspects from the air,” said Smith.

Also on display was one of five drones, which MPD will use for the first time.

“With the ability to link to our Real-Time Crime Center, we will be able to provide even more information to our officers on the ground,” said Smith.

The Parrot Anafi drones are capable of flying about 30 minutes without recharging. They are equipped with cameras, but are not capable of carrying other items.

Smith said officers can leverage information gathered by the drones “for service of high-risk search warrants, and other indoor applications where drone technology may reduce the potential for confrontation between our officers and our armed suspects.”

Accountability measures have built into District’s drone program, said Smith.

pamela smith and muriel bowser with new helicopter
D.C. Police Chief Pamela Smith and Mayor Muriel Bowser stand in front of a new helicopter on June 24, 2024. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
dc police drone
D.C. police launched its first ever drone program and unveiled a new helicopter on June 24, 2024. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
pamela smith and muriel bowser with new helicopter
dc police drone

”Specifically trained officers will deploy this technology, in response to individuals with weapons and barricaded subjects,” and while searching for missing people and during crash reconstruction, said Smith. “And even for crowd management in large gatherings.”

Smith aimed to soothe privacy concerns.

“Our drone program, today, will not utilize artificial intelligence, facial recognition, or be used for general surveillance purposes,” said Smith, who said she expects the number of drones and capabilities will continue to change in the near future.

Smith said she has talked recently with residents and other stakeholders, who expressed surprise that the District’s police department was not already using drones. D.C. police estimates 1,500 police departments use remotely operated aircraft systems.

The police chief and mayor said most people who they’ve talked with are supportive of the drone program, if it results in a reduction in crime.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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