Survey Finds UAS Programs Increasing in Size, Scope; Funding Remains an Issue
Wednesday, July 29, 2020 | Comments
A survey conducted by the DRONERESPONDERS non-profit program shows that the size and scope of public-safety unmanned aerial system (UAS) programs are increasing, but funding for those programs remains an issue.

The survey, in which 289 public-safety UAS stakeholders participated, found that many programs had grown in terms of personnel since a similar survey conducted in the fall. In the 2019 survey, about 81% of public-safety UAS programs had less than 10 pilots, with only 18% having more than 10. In the spring survey, that number increased to 26%, which shows that programs are beginning to mature and grow, said Christopher Todd, executive director of the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT).

Additionally, in the fall survey, only 13% of respondents said their programs were three years or older, but in the spring survey, 35% of respondents said their programs were three years or older. Another 22% of respondents in the 2020 survey said that their programs have been around for two years.

“That’s basically telling us that 57% of public-safety UAS programs have been operating for a while, and that should provide us with a lot of experience and data,” said Todd.

Additionally, UAS programs are slowly increasing the number of missions they fly each month. In the fall survey, 59% of respondents said they flew one to five missions per month, 19% said they flew six to 10 per month, 7% said they flew 11-15, 3% said they flew 16-20 and 11% said they flew 21 or more missions.

In the spring survey, 50% of respondents said they fly just one to five missions per month, while most other areas saw increases. The 11-15 and 16-20 categories saw little change, but 23% of respondents said they fly six to 10 missions and 16% said they fly 21 or more missions per month.

However, funding for UAS programs remains an issue. Twenty-three percent of respondents said their annual UAS budget is $1,000 or less, while 32% said their budget is between $1,000 and $9,999. Sixteen percent of respondents indicated that their budget is between $9,999 and $19,999. Only 27% of respondents said their annual budget is more than $20,000.

“The numbers have never been great for programs that are starting out,” said Charles Werner, director of DRONERESPONDERS. “We’re seeing how many people are doing programs on a shoestring budget.”

Additionally, 64% of respondents said that grant funding and/or donations are either extremely or very important to funding their public-safety UAS programs. The survey did not delve into what types of grants agencies are pursuing or receiving, but DRONERESPONDERS plans on researching that in more depth in the future, Todd said.

Even with tight budgets, agencies are looking at purchasing more drones this year. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they plan to purchase at least one drone before Dec. 31, while 26% said they were unsure.

“It was good to see that despite all the budget setbacks that public safety and governments are experiencing, there is still going to be some money spent on UAS,” said Todd, acknowledging the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the drones used by public safety, DJI remains a favorite brand, with nearly 91% of respondents saying they use the brand. Skydio was the second most used brand with 10% of respondents. Respondents may use multiple brands of drones in their operations.

Skydio has likely seen an increase in use because of its sense-and-avoid technology, which can help avoid mid-air collisions, Werner said.

Even as Chinese-based DJI was used by a majority of respondents, many respondents said they are concerned about drone data security and vulnerabilities within UAS or software that might allow foreign governments or companies to receive sensitive information from flight operations. In the spring survey, 50% of respondents said they were moderately to extremely concerned about such issues, while 37% said they were concerned in the fall survey.

Todd said it’s likely that in the future, grant money will not be available to purchase drones made by companies from some foreign countries.

Additionally, 78% of respondents in the spring survey said that they were moderately to extremely concerned about the impact that congressional or presidential actions could have on their programs.

Fire rescue at 37% and law enforcement at 42% are the largest public-safety users of UAS while about 13% of drone use is for emergency management. Additionally, most current UAS use is on a local level with 81% of respondents indicating they are a municipality or a county. State users comprised 11% of respondents, and federal users were 5%.

All jurisdictions with UAS programs had 1,000 or more people in the survey, while 21% of respondents were in major cities with populations of 500,000 or more people.

Find the full results of the survey here.

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