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New First Responder Drone Program Comes to Irvine

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The city of Irvine is set to partner with Flying Lion, a major drone service provider, to launch a pilot program for increased utilization of drones as first responders near the end of October.

The program will test the expanded uses of drones in Irvine law enforcement without a specific timeline, according to Irvine Councilmember Tammy Kim to the OC Register

The drone provider Flying Lion specifically services law enforcement agencies and specializes in the “Drones as First Responders” (DFR) program, in which a teleoperator dispatches a drone for a service call before sending a law enforcement officer. This program will be implemented at the Irvine Police Department (IPD), with approximately $100,000 of funding from the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA). This funding will come from a 2019 $50 million deal between OCFA and Irvine for public safety resources.

According to the Flying Lion website, a teleoperator will control the first responder drone from a control room in a police station. Sgt. Jim Horst, of Chula Vista Police Department — a San Diego county department that was the first in the nation to integrate the DFR program — explained that the teleoperator will then “relay information from the drone to the officers in the field.”

IPD Sgt. Chris Bees stated to the OC Register that the first responder drones will play an important role in de-escalation and, consequently, in how officers react to perceived threats in confrontations. Bees cited a case in Chula Vista where drone footage proved that a suspect was holding a lighter, not a gun, as previously believed by officers. 

The city of Irvine is not new to drones in law enforcement and public safety. The IPD have used drone technology in its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program since 2019 for routine bimonthly searches for missing people in the city. In 2021, drones with special infrared capabilities were also used to locate the arsonist responsible for the fire on the 261 Toll Road in Irvine, according to a KTLA report

In 2018 and 2019, research on drone programs in law enforcement from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the Department of Justice, found drones useful in various instances. Some cases include search and rescue, crowd monitoring, crime scene reconstruction and investigating armed suspects. The study also noted public reception surrounding the technology.

“Many community members have legitimate concerns because of the privacy issues,” the report stated. “[Police agencies are urged in] explaining their plans publicly, holding public forums and working with the community in topics like defining the purposes of police drones.” 

IPD aims to keep the program very transparent to the public. According to the OC Register, the department stated they intend to set up a drone activity dashboard that shares information like the volume and nature of events, individual locations of flights, timings and even arrest data.

In recent years, police departments have been increasingly integrating drone technology. In 2018 Laguna Beach was the first OC city to launch a first responder drone program. However, there are positive and negative implications of using drones in public spheres. As reported by Patrick Sisson in the MIT Technology Review, the true debate on privacy and policies regarding the use of this technology is lagging behind.

“Many argue that it’s happening too fast,” Sisson stated. “The use of drones as surveillance tools and first responders is a fundamental shift in policing, one that is happening without a well-informed public debate around privacy regulations, tactics and limits for this technology.”

Ian Erickson is a City News Intern for the fall 2023 quarter. He can be reached at