Manatee County officials are partnering with a private drone company to become one of the first government agencies in the nation to use autonomous drones as part of a 911 emergency response.
The process began about 18 months ago when Archer First Response Systems reached out to the county’s Public Safety Department with a potentially revolutionary idea. If the plan earns approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, it could serve as a nationwide model.
“This is a completely different level,” said Jake Saur, the county’s public safety director. “This drone does not have a pilot. It knows its flight plan before it even leaves. It has LIDAR and maps all the points within its flight zone, and it knows where it can and can’t fly.”
A drone is a small, multi-rotor aircraft that, for consumers, is typically remote-controlled by a human operator. AFRS, an Orlando-based unmanned aircraft systems company, offers a more advanced system that takes advantage of flight computers and laser technology to operate without human input.
The Manatee Board of County Commissioners 6-1 approved a motion that allows the county to enter a 1-year equipment lease and operating services agreement with AFRS for $1 a month. Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace cast the dissenting vote.
According to Saur, the plan is to integrate the drone into the 911 response system. Depending on the emergency, the drone can be deployed from the EMS Lakewood Ranch Base, 10311 Malachite Drive, to deliver Narcan, a tourniquet or a defibrillator while the 911 center walks the caller through the process of applying the equipment.
An ambulance would still respond to the scene, with the drone serving as an add-on to EMS’s usual response.
“The 911 telecommunicator would continue to assist the caller or bystander on how to operate the equipment until EMS can arrive,” Saur told commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.
In a video posted to his company’s YouTube channel, Gordon Folkes, founder and CEO of AFRS, says the technology can save lives by getting the necessary equipment to crisis victims quicker than ever before.
“The fatal issue is simply timing, getting an AED from Point A to Point B in a quick enough time to save the victim,” Folkes said. “This is especially an issue in active adult communities, active communities, golf courses and universities.”
“This one-of-a-kind pilot program is the latest cutting-edge program Manatee County has undertaken to improve public safety and our ability to respond to the public in an efficient and timely way,” the county’s project team said in a prepared statement.
“This is a partnership program that is in the early stages of being developed with Archer First Response Systems (AFRS) and Tampa General Hospital,” the statement continued. “We achieved an important milestone at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting and we’ll now look to the FAA for an additional round of review and approvals.”
Using drones as innovative tools isn’t a new technique in Manatee County. The county first adopted drone piloting for videography purposes in 2016 and has since expanded its use of the technology to include inspections, damage assessment and construction monitoring. Today, Manatee owns a fleet of 11 drones and has 32 certified pilots.
“In addition to infrastructure, our property management group uses drones to evaluate tall buildings. It’s easier to get a drone and use that to capture high-definition visuals of roads, buildings, vehicles and so forth that might be hard to get with a camera on the ground,” said Nicholas Azzara, the county’s information outreach manager.
While the drone program is a joint effort with a private company, Azzara credits Saur’s leadership in the Public Safety Department for the opportunity. Since taking charge of the department, Saur has embraced several new technologies, including text to 911, support for the Pulse Point application and the county’s informational 311 center.
“Jake has put into place a culture of innovation and embracing technology to enhance public safety response times and to help enable his staff to respond more efficiently,” said Azzara. “He’s been on the cutting edge of a lot of the industry’s technological advances. It catches people’s attention. All those stars probably aligned at the right time.”
According to Saur, there’s no word on when the FAA might grant approval for the pilot program. If it does, Manatee County would be the first government agency in the nation to offer 911 response assistance with the use of a drone.
“We don’t know what we don’t know. I do believe this is the future of public safety. I like that we ride that cutting edge. I think for a county, that’s something for us to be proud of,” Saur explained. “Will it work? Who knows? It’s a pilot program. Definitely, though, if it were to be approved by the FAA, the entire nation would be looking at this program to see — does it work?”