Torch Hosts HPD Drone Demonstration

Thursday, January 18, 2024

While many people know that Huntsville was one of the early homes of the Army rocket programs that earned it the nickname “The Rocket City,” it is also the center for the Army’s drone programs. Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) are becoming useful tools outside of the military applications. The HPD has been a leader in using commercially built drones to enhance public safety. Torch Technologies hosted a meeting with Police Officer Chad Tillman of the Huntsville Police Department (HPD) and several of his drone pilots to discuss how Torch could apply our expertise with military drones to enhance the HPD drone operations.

Officer Tillman said, “The HPD drones are able to provide major support to traffic investigation, drug interdiction, and special teams.” Because HPD drone pilots are patrol officers embedded in precincts throughout the city, officers can respond to an event within their precinct in under 5-10 minutes with their drones carried in their police vehicles. This has caused drone use to increase and has shown how drones play a vital role in a wide range of police missions. However, their current operations are limited because the HPD pilots cannot utilize many of the features available to military drone pilots.

Smaller and much lower cost than military drones, the HPD drones are commercially procured and are quite useful “out-of-the-box,” but there are limitations. The drones operate over commercial communications wavebands and therefore have very limited range. Some of the issues they have are the limitations on the sensors built into the sUAS. The HPD expressed a desire to have better situational awareness when flying the drones. This includes adding more sophisticated, yet affordable, sensors for better night vision, a sensor to detect "shots fired" to geolocate gun fire, and better sensors to avoid obstacles, especially when flying in side buildings. Another desire is expanded communications bandwidth to transmit video back to their analysts at their headquarters for real-time evaluation.

HPD was interested in accessing Torch’s wealth of experience in aviation, sensors, and software solutions, including AI detection/tracking algorithms, to integrate greater autonomy into the operations of the drones to ease the burden on the police pilots. HPD plans to purchase more drones, continue training officers, establish a city-wide command and control infrastructure, and build out a sUAS support vehicle in the future. As a community partner, Torch is exploring ways to share our skills and experience to help our community and perhaps become a partner in the HPD drone program.