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Drone in flightIn an effort to improve campus safety and emergency response time, UNC Police has integrated two new drones into its operation. The new DJI Mavic 3T drones will be used primarily as a first responder tool and help police monitor on-campus events.

“We consider these drones an investment in overall campus safety,” explains UNC Police Community Services Sgt. James David. “In addition to monitoring campus activities, they help us direct first responders to exact locations and provide unobstructed access during emergencies or special events.”

Unmanned Aerial Systems

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as an aircraft that is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft.

UNC Police, along with other Orange County agencies, is already utilizing UAS and drones. During the recent Tar Heel 10 Miler, UNC Police partnered with South Orange Rescue Squad to use their UAS equipment and was able to quickly identify exact locations for multiple medical calls.

Drones previously purchased by UNC Police are no longer in operation because the FAA now requires that every device is equipped with a Remote ID. Priced at around $5000 each, the new drones are capable of better performance at a fraction of the cost. The DJI Mavic 3T comes equipped with wide-angle lenses on all sides, a thermal camera and the capability to cover 2 square kilometers in a single flight with a 45-minute flight duration.

“Our first drone was heavy and hard to carry,” says David. “Now, it literally fits in the palm of my hand. I can put this new drone in the air in a matter of minutes.”

Beyond the immediate use of the drones for University activities, UNC Police will make the drones available to partnering first responder agencies in scenarios like missing persons or monitoring structure fires.

Operating UAS

Operating a drone requires FAA Part 107 certification, also known as a Remote Pilot Certification. To qualify, applicants must be in good physical and mental condition and pass the initial aeronautical knowledge exam Unmanned Aircraft General – Small (UAG).

UNC Police capture May 2024 graduation celebration from drone.

Currently, there are two UNC Police officers with a Part 107 certification. “The certificate requires extensive training,” explains David. “It’s a big responsibility. You’re piloting a piece of equipment in the air, so you have to be cognizant of how it operates and the environment your operating in.”

UNC Police is also working on the ability to stream all drone footage directly to the Emergency Operations Command (EOC) using an open-source software platform called the Team Awareness Kit (TAK). Created by the Department of Defense (DoD), TAK allows users to create, see and share data, improving communication and situational awareness for everyone monitoring the same devices. North Carolina Department of Information Technology FirstTech manages the program and is no cost for users, including UNC Police. Data is encrypted and users must be authorized before registering a device with the program.

“In an incident like we experienced on August 28, where we have a lot of officers from different agencies on campus, this feature would have everyone connected,” explains David. “The drone and the platform are working together to fill gaps in real-time response.”

The drones are officially in use. Moving forward, UNC Police plans to train additional licensed personnel capable of operating the drones. With multiple operators, the department can deploy the drones when necessary and expand its emergency response capabilities.

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