Dispatching in the Drone Zones

[Originally published in the January/February 2024 PSC magazine.]

The devices extend the eyes and ears of public safety while adding new operational complexities.

By Kelley Cunningham


Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), have emerged as increasingly valuable tools for first responders, revolutionizing how emergency personnel approach critical situations by being able to provide real-time aerial insights and capabilities that were once difficult or impossible to attain. As the use of drones increases, it is important that emergency personnel are well-versed in the regulations and guidelines governing their operation. Adhering to these rules is crucial not only to ensure the safe and responsible use of drones but also to avoid potential legal and operational challenges that can arise when deploying these invaluable tools in the field.

To operate drones legally and safely, operators must be aware of the airspace they intend to fly in and comply with all relevant regulations and restrictions. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and aviation authorities worldwide provide guidelines and tools, such as online airspace maps and authorization systems, to help drone operators plan their flights within legal parameters. Additionally, drone operators should always prioritize safety, maintain a visual line of sight with their aircraft, and avoid interfering with manned aircraft. By following safety rules and using best operating practices, first responders play a key role in protecting the public from unsafe and unauthorized drone operations. For more information about drone regulations and guidelines, visit https://www.faa.gov/uas.


First responders have harnessed the power of drones to strengthen their capabilities throughout the entire spectrum of emergency response, from the preparation phase before a crisis through the chaotic scenes of a disaster and into the critical aftermath. Before an emergency, drones are deployed for pre-disaster assessments, revealing potential hazards while enabling optimal resource allocation and comprehensive area mapping. During the emergency itself, these UAS serve as the eyes in the sky, offering real-time situational awareness, facilitating search and rescue missions and enhancing overall coordination. In the post-disaster phase, drones play a pivotal role in damage assessment, environmental monitoring and the collection of crucial data for recovery planning. Their versatility and ability to access hard-to-reach areas while reducing risk to first responders make drones invaluable assets in the toolkit of those who stand at the forefront of emergency response, ultimately saving lives and expediting the recovery process.

Here’s a breakdown of how drones are used before, during and after an emergency:


  • Mapping and surveying: Drones can create detailed 3D maps and terrain models, helping emergency planners and responders understand the area’s topography and infrastructure. This aids in formulating response strategies.
  • Preparedness and planning: Drones can be used to conduct aerial surveys and mapping of high-risk areas to assess vulnerabilities and plan emergency response strategies. This data is invaluable for identifying potential hazards and developing mitigation plans.
  • Resource inventory: Drones can be used to conduct inventory and inspection of resources that may be needed in emergencies such as equipment, supplies and infrastructure.
  • Training: Emergency responders can train with drones to become familiar with their operations and capabilities. This preparation ensures that the team can effectively deploy drones during an emergency.


  • Communication: Drones equipped with communication relay capabilities can establish temporary networks in areas with disrupted communication infrastructure, enabling responders to maintain communication and coordinate efforts.
  • Damage assessment: Drones can conduct rapid damage assessments by capturing images and videos of affected areas. This data helps emergency managers prioritize response efforts and allocate resources effectively.
  • Hazmat and environmental monitoring: Drones can be used to assess the spread of hazardous materials and monitor environmental conditions, helping responders plan and execute containment and cleanup operations safely.
  • Medical supply delivery: Drones can quickly transport medical supplies, such as defibrillators, first aid kits or medications, to remote or inaccessible areas. This is particularly crucial in situations where timely medical intervention is essential.
  • Search and rescue: Drones equipped with cameras and thermal imaging can quickly cover large areas and locate missing persons, especially in hard-to-reach or hazardous environments. They can transmit real-time data to ground teams, expediting rescue operations.
  • Situational awareness: Drones provide live aerial footage of the affected area, giving emergency responders a real-time view of the situation. This information helps them make informed decisions about resource allocation and response strategies.


  • Damage assessment and recovery: Drones continue to be valuable in the aftermath of an emergency for ongoing damage assessment and recovery efforts. They can identify hidden dangers and help prioritize reconstruction and restoration.
  • Environmental impact assessment: Drones can survey environmental damage such as pollution or oil spills to guide environmental agencies’ cleanup and restoration.
  • Monitoring ongoing hazards: Drones can monitor ongoing hazards such as floodwaters, wildfires or unstable structures, providing real-time updates to ensure the safety of responders and the public.
  • Public information: Aerial footage can be shared with the public and media to provide a clear understanding of the situation, evacuation routes and the extent of damage.

The use of drones in emergency situations continues to evolve and play a vital role in enhancing the capabilities of first responders and emergency management, improving response times and reducing risk to those on the front lines of disaster and crisis management. The effective use of drones in emergency management and response requires proper training, adherence to regulations and consideration of privacy concerns. As technology advances, drones will likely play an even more prominent role in enhancing emergency response and recovery efforts.


Drones and artificial intelligence (AI) are two rapidly advancing technologies with significant intersections and synergy potential. AI can enhance the capabilities of drones in various ways, making them more efficient,
autonomous and versatile.

Key aspects of the relationship between drones and AI include:

  • Autonomous navigation: AI algorithms enable drones to navigate autonomously by processing data from sensors, such as global positioning systems (GPS), lidar and cameras. This allows drones to follow predetermined flight paths, avoid obstacles and adapt to changing environments.
  • Object detection and tracking: AI-powered computer vision systems can detect and track objects of interest from drone imagery, such as people, vehicles or wildlife. This is valuable for applications like search and rescue, surveillance, and wildlife management.
  • Environmental monitoring: AI-equipped drones can monitor environmental conditions, such as air quality, water quality and temperature, providing real-time data for research and disaster management.
  • Security and surveillance: Drones can be used for perimeter security and surveillance of critical infrastructure. AI algorithms can help identify potential security threats and anomalies in real-time video feeds.

Challenges associated with integrating AI and drones include privacy concerns, regulatory issues and the need for robust algorithms to ensure safe and reliable operations. Additionally, the development of AI-driven drones requires collaboration between experts in drone technology, AI and public safety. As both AI and drone technologies evolve, their combined potential is likely to expand, offering innovative solutions to many real-world challenges.


In the realm of drone operations, adherence to regulations and guidelines is paramount, not only for safe and responsible usage but also for maximizing their potential benefits before, during and after an emergency. The seamless integration of drones into emergency response efforts depends on navigating and complying with airspace restrictions, securing permits where required and ensuring effective communication with relevant authorities. These regulations serve as safeguards to protect individuals’ lives, property and privacy. Furthermore, the synergy of drones and AI has paved the way for innovative solutions in emergency response. As drones evolve in tandem with AI, they are poised to play an even more pivotal role in saving lives, reducing the impact of disasters on communities and reducing risk to first responders. Striking a harmonious balance between regulations, guidelines, technology and the expertise of first responders is key to unlocking the full potential of drones in emergency situations. The future of emergency response is indeed taking flight with these remarkable tools and the careful oversight that ensures their responsible use.

Kelley Cunningham, ENP, is the Director at Eaton County 9-1-1 in Charlotte, Michigan. She can be contacted at [email protected].