Louisville Plans to Become First U.S. City to Use Drones

Louisville, Ky., is vying to become probably the first city in the country to use autonomous drones to respond to the sound of gunfire.

The city has applied for a special program the Federal Aviation Administration is running, where it will give a handful of cities temporary permission to get around long-standing drone rules in order to run pilot projects. Those rules, which operators typically have to get individual waivers to get around, include flying drones outside the operator’s line of sight, flying at night and flying above people.

All of those rules would make it pretty difficult for a city to do what Louisville wants to do. The city has ShotSpotter sensors spread throughout its urban fabric, listening for gunshots. When such a noise is picked up, and interpreted by ShotSpotter’s analysts to be gunfire and not a similar sound, a notification is sent to police who can respond to the scene.

Louisville wants to try out the concept of sending self-routing drones to fly to the scene first. That could bring about several possible benefits: Since they’re airborne, drones would likely be able to arrive on scene faster than a police officer. With an aerial view, they could capture video evidence to help authorities find the person who fired the weapon. And in the case of a false alarm — there have been reports of sensors interpreting fireworks and backfiring cars as gunshots — the drones might be able to keep an officer from responding to nothing.

It’s an idea that came out of need. According to Chris Seidt, Louisville’s director of information technology, Mayor Greg Fischer tasked the city’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation — which Seidt was in before moving to his current position — with finding outside-the-box solutions to some urgent problems.

Gun violence was a big one. According to LouieStat, the city’s statistics portal, Louisville saw shootings more than double from 228 in 2014 to 460 in 2016. They fell in 2017, but around that time the city was installing ShotSpotter. The new system gave officials an indication that there was still a lot of shooting to worry about.

“In its first six months of existence, we had 800 activations of the system,” Seidt said. “In the 400 square miles of Jefferson County, that’s a bit of a problem.”

Another bad statistic for the city: Its clearance rate, or the rate at which homicide cases end in an arrest, is about 50 percent. That’s below the national average.

“We thought, ‘What’s the likelihood of getting a better clearance rate if we get to the site of a gunshot incident quickly?’” Seidt said.

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