Drone first responder: Hilliard police working with prototype 'game-changer'

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group
Andrew Merz, a mechanical and material engineer at Converge Technologies, holds a prototype of a drone first responder with John Bair, CEO and CTO of Converge Technologies, and Hilliard police Deputy Chief Eric Grile.

The Hilliard Division of Police is testing a prototype drone first responder being developed by Hilliard-based Converge Technologies in a collaboration that is "a game-changer in every response,” Deputy Chief Eric Grile said. 

Hilliard police have been using drones since 2019, but they are deployed only after officers arrive at a scene. They also have limited applications because the Federal Aviation Administration requires drones to be visible at all times to operators or to a human in radio contact with an operator. 

The goal is to do incremental testing to improve the capabilities of drone first responders, earn FAA certificates of authorization after each test and to eventually achieve the ability to operate DFRs using electronic visual lines of sight, Grile said. 

“At this stage, it is a development partnership” and there is no pending contract for the lease or purchase of DFRs, he said. 

Converge Technologies, 4621 Lyman Drive, with support from other companies housed there, is developing the means for drones to safely fly to emergency scenes, avoiding birds, trees, other drones, and any other obstacles, said John Bair, the company’s chief executive officer and chief technology officer. 

He said Converge Technologies is building the platform for DFRs, but other companies are contributing to all the parts and pieces needed to achieve the goal of getting FAA approval for drones to fly using electronic visual lines of sight. 

Andrew Merz, a mechanical and material engineer at Converge Technologies, holds a prototype of a drone first responder.

GhostWave is developing the radar system for the DFRs; Lighthouse Avionics builds the towers necessary for the autonomy of the drones and establishing an electronic visual line of sight; Cal Analytics is building the management system or “flight control” for the DFRs; Axis Communications makes ground-based or tower-mounted cameras for tracking the DFRs; and Ubihere will establish the protocols or the “brains” of the DFRs, Bair said. 

“It’s a collaborative effort, (and) it’s a minimal one-year process,” he said. 

The companies involved in developing the drone first responders have received grants from the Ohio Federal Research Network and other agencies, Bair said.

"There are a lot of moving parts to this project with a lot of support from a number of private, state and federal agencies," Bair said. "To complete the entire system will take more investment over the next couple of years."

Besides $2.6 million in funding from the OFRN, the project also has received funding from Small Business Innovation Research, Small Business Technology Transfer, and Technology Validation Startup Fund.

The OFRN grant allowed GhoseWave to invest $1.2 million to develop the radar-threat detection system and Cal Analytics to invest $1,4 million to develop the air-traffic management system.

The SBIR funded Ubihere $850,000 to develop an asset-tracking device that will be used in the towers and on the drone, and the STTR funded Ubihere $150,000 to develop the GPS-denied navigation technology to be used in the drone.

The TVSF funded Lighthouse Avionics $100,000 to develop the autonomous-drone technology.

Converge Technologies is investing an additional $500,000 to complete the DFR prototype aircraft, Cal Analytics is investing an additional $450,000, and Lighthouse Avionics an additional $500,000, Bair said.

While Converge Technologies brings the computer hardware and software to the table to perfect the DFRs, Grile said the police department brings the ability to obtain the certificates of authorization needed from the FAA to operate the drones. 

Grile said the idea of using a drone in a more proactive way was born at the International Chiefs of Police conference that he and Chief Robert Fisher attended in Chicago in 2019. He said he learned that police in Chula Vista, California, use drones when responding to emergency situations, including car crashes, active breaking-and-entering incidents and in some instances, domestic disputes. 

Grile said he can envision a multitude of ways in which a drone first responder could be used. For instance, he said, when a 911 is placed, an officer could deploy a DFR that could follow a direct path at speeds of up to 80 mph and reach any location in Hilliard in about a minute.  

At that point, a dispatcher could choose to end the call with the person who first called 911 and begin relaying what the DFR “sees” to the officers responding to the scene. 

The DFR “extends the learning curve,” for responding officers, Grile said. 

The more an officer knows before arriving at a scene, the safer it is for the officer, those who called police, and the public, Grile said. 

The use of a DFR also lessens the risk of vital information being missed, misunderstood, or “lost in translation,” he said.  

The policies and protocols for DFRs – once finalized – must be able to be replicated so other law-enforcement agencies can use the technology, perhaps similar to how multiple police agencies began using radio frequencies, Grile said. 

The collaboration between the city and Converge Technologies is an example of the benefit of having such resources in the city, Development Director David Meadows said. 

“We’re always happy when the city can find ways to partner with companies like this because it shows that Hilliard is an attractive place for entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses,” Meadows said. 

kcorvo@thisweeknews.con 

@ThisWeekCorvo