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The 5 As of DFR: Breaking down the DNA of a Drone as First Responder program

DFR provides considerable promise for increased safety, reduced response times and improved de-escalation capabilities for public safety agencies

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A drone is prepared for launch at the Redondo Beach Police Department DFR operation.


By Fritz Reber

The concept of a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program can be defined as a first responder deploying immediately to an incident via drone, allowing the responder to quickly and safely get eyes on the scene to obtain the best view of what’s happening.

To be effective, a DFR system must be capable of doing three things:

  1. Get there
  2. Get there fast
  3. See stuff

DFR is different from traditional public safety drone use. Often, through misunderstanding, the term DFR has been used to describe drone operations that aren’t truly DFR. To be clear, DFR does not apply to any use of drones by first responders. DFR, in its true form, is a system set up to launch a drone within seconds of learning of an emergency.

If you want a yardstick to determine if your operation is a DFR program, measure the time from when a call for service hits the CAD to when a drone is launched and flying toward an incident. If it’s more than a minute, it’s not DFR. The most advanced DFR operations launch only seconds after the 911 caller has dialed the phone. This can be minutes before the call-taker has gathered the initial details and routed them to a dispatcher or first responders. Mature DFR programs often arrive at the scene of an incident before the call for service even appears in CAD. (Hint: If you are not able to be en route via drone before the call hits CAD, you’re not quite done building your DFR program — see this video for example).

Background of DFR programs

The origin story of DFR is becoming well known. The first official DFR program became operational in Chula Vista, California, in October 2018 and since then, the concept has gained broad acceptance and programs are taking flight across the U.S., Mexico, Canada, UK, Europe and Australia. Scores of public safety agencies are estimated to have some form of DFR operation, with many more exploring implementation in their community.

Agencies face many challenges when setting up a DFR program — including technology, operational protocols, training, approvals and waivers. Public safety departments are quickly learning that to truly scale DFR, the private sector must provide turnkey solutions for customers, facilitated by regulatory relief. This is key to making DFR accessible and affordable to every public safety agency in every community.

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DFR requires purpose-built software to allow a first responder to operate a drone from a desktop computer.


The 5 As of DFR

Drone as First Responder (DFR) Programs have five elements essential for completing their mission. These can be summarized as the 5 As of DFR:

  1. Aircraft
  2. Aircraft management
  3. Autonomy
  4. Airspace awareness
  5. Approvals

Let’s explore these fundamentals in detail and some key questions an agency should consider when launching a DFR program.

1. Aircraft

This, of course, refers to the type of drone and its associated capabilities that the agency should use.

Will it be a quadcopter with the ability to hover and provide a stable view of a fixed point, but with limited flight time? Or will it be a fixed-wing drone that can stay aloft longer and fly faster but perhaps provide a less stable view of a fixed point in high winds?

What type of camera is needed? Does it have thermal capabilities? Is the camera’s zoom powerful enough to read a license plate or recognize a person from an altitude of 300-400 feet away at a 45-degree downward-facing angle?

DFR is about speed. Does the drone fly fast enough? Does it launch quickly? How long does it take to recharge, or are the batteries hot-swappable?

These are just some of the considerations, and an agency’s choices will be limited if the drone selection isn’t integrated with or conducive to some of the other factors listed below.

2. Aircraft management

This refers to the process of launching, landing and recharging the aircraft. For Chula Vista PD and other DFR programs, this currently requires a human to change batteries and ensure safe take-off and landing. The holy grail is an automated dock system that does the work of a human, making DFR less expensive and operational over longer periods and in different weather conditions.

Does the aircraft/drone the agency selected work with a docking system or otherwise allow it to manage itself? Does the docking system have contact recharge that takes considerable time, or does it hot-swap the batteries and allow immediate take-off? Does it protect against the elements and provide onboard cameras for site safety and aircraft inspection?

What is the launch time of the dock? Does the time to launch significantly eat into the overall response time? Does the command and control link impact the drone’s ability to reach the scene? Does the launch speed, time to connect to satellites and flight speed impact the ability to get there quickly?

3. Autonomy

The most fundamental software features require the ability to remotely control the drone, with automated features like return-to-home and position-hold capabilities. Often, other software features utilize geo-fencing or other obstacle-avoidance capabilities.

Does your remote operations (RO) software selection integrate airspace alerts like radar, ADS-B, Remote ID, and/or radio frequency (RF) drone detection? What is the drone’s behavior in the event of a loss of link or airspace incursions with other aircraft? What autonomy features in the RO software enable the pilot to multi-task, such as seeing augmented reality (AR) overlays that show streets, addresses, and points of interest (POI) locations?

Where are you getting your information about what is happening and where, i.e., what are your drone launch trigger sources? Is the RO software integrated with the agency’s CAD system? Is it integrated with pre-CAD data sources like 911-caller audio/location solutions, gunshot detection, and license plate readers? Does the software integrate with the dock system to allow multi-drone operation and in-air drone swapping for sustained overwatch?

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DFR requires advanced drones with powerful cameras, integrated with docking systems that can withstand all weather conditions.


4. Airspace Awareness

How is an agency going to ensure the drone doesn’t hit anything? This is a two-fold requirement. The primary requirement, of course, is the ability to detect and avoid (DAA) other aircraft or flying objects. The secondary and closely related requirement is the FAA’s regulation to have a DAA solution to enable beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight. Currently, virtually all DFR operations are done “Chula Vista” style, using humans on rooftops who maintain a clear view of the airspace and alert the remote pilot of possible hazards. This person also serves as the solution to aircraft management.

From some of the requirements listed in the autonomy section above, it is clear there is significant overlap and interdependence among the capabilities of each “A.” Does the DFR system utilize a radar system or other visual aid that can replace a human eye? What is the range of this solution? Does it work both day and night?

5. Approval

There are many stakeholders in a DFR program. Does the agency have a solution, consisting of the combination of the four other As above that satisfies Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requirements? Does the agency have permission from city leadership and the community it serves to fly drones to emergency calls? Does the agency plan on flying routine random missions, or does it limit flights only to actual incidents or 911 calls to ensure community trust? Does the RO software have transparency tools to share flight data with the public, record statistical data, and enable accountability against abuse?

Again, the interdependence of the 5As on each other can narrow down an agency’s options considerably and make selecting the perfect combination of products and solutions a daunting task.


DFR provides considerable promise for increased safety, reduced response times and improved de-escalation capabilities for public safety agencies. The successes of those who have paved the way have proven the value and addressed the concerns of the communities they serve. It is clear that agencies considering DFR today face a daunting task if they go it alone. They must invest time and resources in addressing each of the 5 As to do it effectively and responsibly.

DFR will truly scale and spread to almost any community when the industry provides turnkey solutions that support customers who are already resource-challenged. Those who seek DFR should evaluate how private industry solution providers address each of the 5 As. Understanding the DNA of DFR is key to choosing the right solution for your agency and community.

About the author
Fritz Reber is a retired Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) Police Captain. He was the UAS Commander who conceived of and worked to stand up the first DFR Program at Chula Vista PD. Fritz retired in 2018 and is now the Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Aerodome, a leading provider of DFR solutions for Public Safety. Previously, he was Head of Public Safety Integration at Skydio, the largest manufacturer of drones in the U.S. While at CVPD he also invented, helped develop and worked to implement Live911, a key tool for the majority of DFR programs worldwide.

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