The other day, we took in a webinar put on by Skydio that featured several police officers discussing their experience with the Skydio 2 drone. Some of these officers had experience with the competition, so we were curious: What did they think of this very different type of drone?

Skydio has rapidly built a reputation for its original Skydio, and then its Skydio 2. Much of that rep is based on the drone’s AI – its ability to follow moving objects while avoiding obstacles. But much of what we’ve seen has come from creators making nifty videos: Tracking cyclists through the woods and on perilous trails, flying deftly through obstacles that would challenge many pilots. And those videos are impressive. But there’s another market sector out there that Skydio is clearly interested in: First Responders.

Those men and women aren’t interested in nice videos; they’re interested in doing their jobs. So, how does Skydio 2 stack up?

Some very clever marketing

Before we get to the webinar, it’s worth noting that Skydio has done something very smart: It donated 100 drones to police departments across the United States. Some of those departments were already flying products by DJI and Autel. For Skydio, it was a way of giving a broad swatch of departments hands-on experience with the product.

The Thin Blue Drone…

What did they think?

Well, based on Skydio’s webinar, police seem pretty stoked about the drone’s capabilities. The Skydio 2’s AI, it seems, isn’t just for downhill skiers and bridge inspectors.

The new drone above the block

For some time, DJI and Autel have been pretty much the only game in town for First Responders. And, with DJI in particular, that’s with good reason. The company has a wide range of products that have proven themselves in the field. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that DJI has helped to revolutionize this aspect of law enforcement. Were it not for DJI (and the evangelistic efforts of Romeo Durscher, who recently left the company), the vast majority of First Responders currently using drones would simply not be using them. We’ve interviewed many in this field, and the response is consistent: DJI builds quality products at reasonable price points.

Thermal camera - Will the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise accept third party accessories
DJI’s Mavic 2 Enterprise has been popular with some First Responders

And then along comes Skydio.

Is AI suitable for First Responder work?

That’s really the question here: Is the Skydio 2’s vaunted Artificial Intelligence an asset for working police officers? Based on the webinar, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Skydio featured three police officers on its panel, and they had some very interesting stories from the field to relay. There are specifics we’ll reach in a moment, but the overarching theme seems to be this: The Skydio 2 allowed officers to fly with greater confidence, including in complex environments riddled with obstacles that would have been a challenge for a pilot flying systems that do not have the same level of AI.

The panel featured three police officers who use Skydio 2s in their departments

Let’s look at Skydio’s view:

Skydio started its webinar by listing what it regards as pain points for police departments using more conventional drones. Those pain points, according to Skydio, include the following:

  • Heavy pilot training required
  • Supply chain security concerns
  • Difficult to fly single-handed

It was Skydio’s webinar, so we’d expect they would look for downsides to the competition. There’s some truth to the above, certainly, but there are also counterpoints:

  • Pilots still need to earn Part 107 status – which also requires a lot of learning
  • There are ways to mitigate security concerns with DJI products
  • Yes, some drones offer dual controls, but that doesn’t mean they’re difficult to fly

Valid points on both sides. But what is Skydio 2 like for police in the field? Let’s find out.

Police relate their experiences

The three guest panelists have, collectively, 64 years of experience in law enforcement. And they’ve all had experience flying the Skydio 2 on the job. All of them praised the product, and each for different reasons.

The Boston experience

Carl Blando is a Sergeant Detective with the Boston Police Crime Scene Response Unit. The department has had drones since 2016 but finally started getting them up in the air in mid-2019. Its fleet, prior to obtaining the Skydio 2, consisted of two Autel drones, along with a DJI Phantom 4 Professional and an Inspire (he didn’t specify which model).

So for crime scenes, when we used to shoot with other drones that we had, we would try to get those above shots shooting down. But in Boston, there’s trees everywhere and we have wires… When you wanted to fly low, it wasn’t always the greatest for what equipment we had. I think it became a lot better when we picked up the Skydio unit… If a suspect runs through a backyard, trying to fly a drone in between buildings, over fences, the Skydio unit definitely helped us out with all that.

Carl Blando, Boston Police Crime Scene Response Unit

A video was played, recorded by the Skydio 2 near Blando’s home. That house was surrounded by large trees and had power lines running nearby. The video showed him identifying his vehicle, parked in front of his home, as an object of interest for the Skydio 2 to lock onto. Blando then piloted the drone from one side of the vehicle to the other, passing close by his house in the process. The Skydio 2, after passing by the front of the car, automatically elevated and rotated itself, keeping its gaze locked on the vehicle.

The point here was that Blando didn’t have to concern himself with proximity to the house or the vehicle. Nor did he have to expertly rotate the drone to keep the vehicle in his sights: All of that work was done by the Skydio 2.

“Whatever heading it has, it goes around the obstacle and comes right back to where you want it to be,” said Blando.

Another clip, from the same location, illustrated just how good the Skydio 2’s obstacle avoidance is. It showed Blando trying to direct the Skydio 2 to collide with his vehicle.

“This whole time, I’m trying to hit the car with the drone and it’s just refusing to. It’s just moving along where I want it to go. I’m not worried about where it’s going or what it’s going to do.” 

Missing, wandering person

David Cameron is a police officer with the City of Campbell Police Department. He relayed the story of trying to find an elderly woman with a history of wandering. There are two Skydio 2s in its nine-aircraft fleet.

Part of the missing person’s history involved wandering into backyards. Because Campbell is in Santa Clara County, there are a lot of swimming pools, which could easily pose a threat to a vulnerable individual. Two officers were dispatched with Skydios.

They were able to fly kind of a high cover and a low cover, immediately clearing swimming pools… But it also allowed them to get down low and look under tree canopies, awnings and backyards, and they were able to start clearing these homes much quicker. On the Skydio I really like on the HDR camera – you have to play with the settings – is the exposure compensator. I like using the exposure compensator on drones, especially in shaded areas, because you can really blow the camera out. We’re not looking for cinematic quality, we’re looking for object identification.”

David Cameron, Police Officer, City of Campbell Police Department

Cameron says the two Skydios meant being able to free other officers to search on foot and by car until the woman was found. Here’s a synopsis from the webinar:

The Skydio 2 worked well for this situation, say police…

Complex environment standoff

Sage Costa is a police officer with the Burlington police department. He was called in by the Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) unit on a standoff involving two people barricaded inside a house. The standoff had already been going on for five hours, and it was known the suspect had several long guns in the home.

The house had an open back yard, meaning it would have been difficult for officers to approach from that vantage point without being highly visible – which would have put them at increased risk. But beyond the backyard fence, the area was heavily treed, which didn’t make it ideal for flying a drone. To further complicate matters, the home featured an elevated patio with a large patio umbrella and roof overhands, which would have obscured the windows if shooting from above.

Chula Vista Police is the first in the world to use Skydio 2 drones
Chula Vista police was the first department to start using Skydio drones

Video that Costa’s Skydio 2 captured on the mission was shown. First, it breezed past the trees on the way from the forest into the backyard. Once it got up close, it avoided the umbrella, the overhangs, and even a clothesline (if we remember correctly). Point is, it was able to get right up close to the window without fear that it might collide with something. And, for effective police work, that location is exactly where this drone needed to be.

The suspects saw the drone; and the drone saw the legs of one of the two people inside – who was lying down at the time. Deployment was rapid, and Costa was pleased with the outcome. The subjects eventually surrendered and said the drone played a role because they knew they’d been located.

Highlights of the Campbell case story with the Skydio 2

The takeaways?

There were plenty of them, including the fact the Boston department found the Skydios easier to operate in GPS-denied environments, or in the face of potential EMF interference from the police station’s antennae.

Mostly, however, the police said the Skydio 2 was a confidence-inspiring platform that allowed them to work in more complex environments – and even, in one case, tracking a suspect through the woods. There was even an anecdote that pilots didn’t want to fly a manual drone when the media was on the scene, just in case there was a mishap. Learning to fly the Skydio with confidence, said the officers, was easier than with the competition.

Using this platform, says Skydio, even helped one department obtain an FAA BVLOS waiver.

The FAA has granted at least two BVLOS waivers for Skydio 2 that we know of…

Don’t count out DJI

This was a super interesting webinar – because it was crystal-clear the officers who’d used the Skydio 2 really like the platform. It was also indicative (as was the donation of 100 drones) that Skydio is paying a lot of attention to this market sector. There are a lot of First Responders (and not just police officers) out there, and drones deployed by these groups carry out truly important work. Word gets around in these circles, and it would be almost expected to see more departments purchasing the Skydio 2.

But don’t dismiss DJI. We have seen countless videos where DJI products, and particularly thermal-equipped drones, have helped save the day for law enforcement, Search and Rescue teams, and fire departments. There are many departments that have not experienced challenges learning to fly and maximize DJI’s products. You can also bet DJI has likely dispatched a team of very smart engineers to work on the AI issue. That’s the DJI way: When competition arises, the company tries to match or beat those products.

The counterpoint

However. Just as DJI had a huge head-start in the industry by being the first to create an Uber-stable flight platform and has excellent flight software, Skydio has its own lead when it comes to AI. And though it has just a fraction of the number of DJI employees at the moment, this company is growing quickly. It also has the option of its X2D series for those who want to incorporate thermal and other features. Plus, it has the ability to get really up close and personal – one of the many new features unlocked by this week’s announcement about the availability of its Skydio Autonomy Enterprise Foundation software suite, which we wrote about in detail here.

Finally, the Skydio platform really excels when it comes to scanning scenes. Take a look at this example:

Now that’s pretty impressive…

Of course, with the right software, a DJI product is capable doing similar scans – though, the models we’re familiar with would have a difficult time with the underside of that bridge. But the real difference here is how scenes like these are captured by the Skydio. With little more than drawing a polygon around the object of interest, the Skydio 2 simply goes to work. It moves its way, autonomously, around the object and knows precisely when to take pictures. Plus, it can get extremely close without concern of collision.

It takes brains to do that – and those brains are a huge value proposition. In the world of law enforcement, police have plenty to occupy their attention already. If a drone with AI makes those jobs easier – particularly with tracking subjects and obstacle avoidance – don’t be surprised if more forces start examining Skydio as an option.

Because, clearly, it now is one.

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