Louisville seeks FAA approval for pilot program to fly automated drones to gunshot sites

The administration of Mayor Greg Fischer recently submitted an application for the Federal Aviation Administration’s new pilot program for drone innovation, which — if approved — would allow Louisville to become the first city in the country to fly automated drones to locations where a gunshot is detected by its new ShotSpotter technology.

Though the city denied our open records request to review the application because it is a preliminary document, Grace Simrall, the city’s chief of civic innovation, and IT director Chris Seidt sat down with Insider Louisville to discuss why they submitted the application and how the new program would work if it is given the green light by federal officials.

President Donald Trump’s executive memorandum in October directed the FAA to create the UAS Integration Pilot Program, which allows local governments to apply for an innovation zone where new drone operations would be permitted beyond the current visual line-of-sight limitations.

Louisville was one of over 300 local governments to submit its application just before the Jan. 4 deadline, and should receive a reply from the FAA within 90 days. The FAA has stated that at least five lead applicants will be approved, but the federal agency did not set a limit.

Simrall says that her team in the Office of Performance Improvement & Innovation is tasked to come up with breakthrough innovations by Mayor Fischer, who has placed public safety as a top priority with the recent surge in homicides.

One innovation her office helped implement last year is ShotSpotter, which allows the Louisville Metro Police Department to triangulate coordinates of the sound of gunfire within roughly 80 feet, allowing officers to respond to that location.

Citing some of the current limitations of this system, Simrall and her team — answering the call from Fischer and the FAA to be innovative — proposed a plan that has never been tried by any city in America before, in which drones equipped with cameras would be automated to fly to sites identified by ShotSpotter and give officers a nearly immediate assessment of what is happening at that scene. The camera footage from these drones would be monitored by the LMPD’s Real Time Crime Center.

“Where ShotSpotter is the most effective, it either has been because officers are very nearby and shots were detected,” said Simrall, “or we happened to have a public safety camera in the vicinity.”

Noting that Louisville has only 200 of these public safety cameras in strategic locations, Simrall said that other cities like London and New York have decided to completely blanket the city with such cameras. However, her department has crunched the numbers on such a strategy and found “it’s cost prohibitive, and it also concerns us about privacy, because these are always-on cameras that would be all over the city.”

“We said, ‘well, what if we can make the cameras move?’ ” said Simrall. “What if they weren’t stationary and fixed?”

Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation

Calling this an “augmentation” to the city’s existing public safety cameras, Simrall said the automated drones would be “providing better tactical awareness to our officers, potentially capturing suspects or vehicles fleeing scenes of crimes, finding evidence faster, finding victims faster and providing medical attention.”

Additionally, Simrall said she thought this program would actually “minimize invasions of privacy” because it is “incident driven and only going and recording in response to a gunshot.”

Stressing that citizen privacy is “something we care deeply about,” Simrall said people are likely to bring up such concerns if their application is approved, and the city would communicate with the public about the program to show the drone technology and “explain the very constrained uses of it.”

“We recognize that’s something that needs to be a community conversation,” said Simrall. “And the UAS Integration Pilot Program asks for privacy plans. That’s something they take very seriously, too.”

While some may view automated police drones as something from an Orwellian sci-fi dystopia, Simrall countered that because it is incident driven, recorded footage would automatically be considered evidence and handled according to standard procedure, not open to the public. She also noted that the city would maintain a flight log, only a single drone would deploy to a gunshot location, and it would initially be a “very limited deployment.”

IT director Seidt noted that the initial deployment area of this program would be “a fraction of the size of the ShotSpotter area,” which is not currently used countywide, but in certain areas that have seen alarming numbers of gunshot and homicide victims in recent years.

LMPD Lt. Jim Cirillo told Insider that while the department does not like to give out the exact boundaries of the ShotSpotter coverage area, it currently covers six square miles in all or part of the following neighborhoods: Portland, Russell, Shawnee, Chickasaw, Parkland, Smoketown, Shelby Park, Old Louisville and downtown. He said the total population of these neighborhoods is around 56,000.

Seidt noted that if approved, this program would have to go through extensive testing, as such a system has never existed before in the country. He said the city has already arranged for testing at a drone port in Perry County of eastern Kentucky, and the Russellville-Logan County Airport in the western part of the state has allowed them to use gunshots on their property so they can do a full simulation and field test of the system.

Seidt also said that Louisville’s application noted the elevations the drones intend to fly at and took into account the height of buildings in its ShotSpotter boundaries, cognizant of avoiding certain areas with tall buildings, airports, and hospitals with medical helicopters.

The FAA program encouraged lead applicants to partner with private sector companies to bolster their chances of being approved, and Seidt said that Louisville’s application includes a total of 25 partners, with an even mix of public and private.

The public partners include the University of Kentucky’s Drone Research Center, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, LMPD, Louisville Fire Department and several local airports. The private partners include Aptonomy, a drone company based out of California, as well as Louisville drone company VizionAir.

Seidt added that if interested cities do not meet every criteria listed in the application, the FAA will immediately reject it.

Noting as little as five among the over 300 applicants could be approved by the FAA, Simrall said that the program is very competitive — adding several times these plans for automated drones are “very preliminary.”