Sky Ops – Drones carve out a role as newest Redondo Beach police tool
by Garth Meyer
“Due west of the trash can.”
On its infrared camera, a Redondo Beach Police drone picked up a heat source in the rocks along the pier Aug. 25 of last year.
They were looking for a wounded shooter.
Redondo Police Reserve Barry Brennan was the drone’s pilot. He already had to pull it away for new batteries – a six-minute round trip to the top of the former South Bay Hospital, where the drone was launched that evening, first sent out to watch over a domestic violence incident.
It was diverted at the report of shots fired at the pier.
Upon arrival, Brennan commanded the drone to check along the sand and amidst the pilings – under Tony’s, under Kincaid’s. No sign of the suspect, who police had shot minutes before as he stood near the rocks. Officers were unsure whether he was hit.
“Three times I had to tell them, ‘I don’t see anything,’” Brennan said.
While the RBPD stood back, an LAPD helicopter arrived to shine its spotlight from 500 feet up. Earlier, as Brennan kept watch of a drone monitor in the basement of the Redondo Beach Police station, his eyes darted to a bird flying across a corner of the screen.
In the other corner, the suspect stumbled by on the rocks.
Brennan missed seeing him.
Now, as the Redondo drone returned with new batteries, all police still had was the ambiguous heat source in the dark. Brennan still could not tell if it was human, nor could the helicopter confirm what was down between the rocks.
Dispatch had said the suspect was wearing a blue shirt.
Brennan could make that out.
A smaller drone, from the Torrance P.D., flying just 20 feet above the rocks, pinpointed the hole in question, but its pen light was too small to be certain what was down there.
Then the helicopter, finding another angle in its orbit with the spotlight, confirmed the heat source was a human in a blue shirt.
Officers on scene closed in.
This July, a man fired shots from his balcony on Irena Street in Redondo Beach, before retreating inside. After police arrived, they sent a tiny, Torrance Police Department drone into the house through an open patio door.
Redondo officers watched the drone camera feed on a screen inside an armored SWAT vehicle.
It showed a man down, and a gun beside him.
The drone held its position and Redondo officers went in, confirming he was dead.
Redondo police have used drones for major public events for seven years. Since 2021, drones have expanded to more common police work.
Brennan introduced the program under previous chief Keith Kauffman.
A former Nordstrom regional security director, Brennan wrote a paper pitching drones for police use, as part of his MBA studies at USC.
That paper became his new career.
The RBPD contracts with Brennan’s Flying Lion, Inc. to launch drones from the top of the Beach Cities Health District building – former South Bay Hospital – in 10-hour shifts. The drones patrol, to a degree, but mainly act in response, giving officers an added view of a situation, which cuts down on searches and makes for less risk.
“The more information you know, the less you have to rush,” Brennan said. “If a drone’s in harm’s way, we don’t care.”
Captain Steven Sprengel oversees the RBPD program from the patrol bureau, known as the DFR — Drone First Responder Program.
It started last year in April, approved by the Redondo Beach city council, to begin a 12-month pilot program in partnership with Hermosa Beach, running four days per week. Hermosa dropped out this April, and the practice continued in Redondo three days per week.
“We do have budgetary restraints as far as expanding the flights, but the safety aspect, the efficiency; I would want to take this to all seven days, if staffing allowed,” said Joe Hoffman, Redondo Beach Police chief.
After a drone is launched, it is controlled by officers at the station.
First, the Flying Lion launch pilot on the hospital roof directs the drone to ascend to a “box” 100 feet in the air, a geofence, where the RBPD pilot takes over. Using a radio and Motorola remote control system, when a call comes in, the officer pilot watches a screen on which a police dispatcher types an address.
The pilot sends it to the drone and the drone flies to the spot. The officer may direct it with a keyboard and a mouse, moving across a grid on screen.
“We’re still flying with a (required) visual line of sight,” Sprengel said.
The main drone in use is a $33,000, Chinese-made DJI Matrice 300.
The roof pilot operates from a metal stand on wheels, which he can roll across the roof to keep the drone in view.
On Friday evening, Sept. 23, the Matrice left on a call while an LAPD helicopter could be seen in the distance on a search near the Compton courthouse.
“I know what a helicopter sounds like when you’re out there trying to catch a bad guy,” said Brennan, a 31-year Redondo Beach resident.
Early last year, during a family disturbance call, a suspected arsonist fled to a storage unit. An RBPD officer flew a drone manually to the facility and found the suspect.
Last week, a drone spotted a stolen car from a description, and confirmed it by zooming in on the license plate.
A drone watching over a family disturbance call in 2021 saw a person jump out a window in the back of the house and run down railroad tracks. The drone kept watch, and showed the suspect turn and hide in bushes.
The pilot directed officers to where he was.
“We’ve had some really good wins with this. It’s proven its worth,” said Sprengel.
The RBPD modeled its program after Chula Vista’s, where Brennan started his first operation. Beverly Hills and Santa Monica began with Flying Lion in the last year.
The drones record video but not audio.
Aside from responding to calls, drones conduct security checks; such as to look for catalytic converter thefts, indicated by a figure getting under a car, or coming out from underneath a car.
This spring, a drone was used for flights over King Harbor, in response to reports of boat fuel being siphoned and stolen.
As a drone moves or hovers, its camera is most often pointed in a certain direction.
“Very few times is it actually pointing straight down,” Sprengel said.
The cost to the RBPD for the program is not-to-exceed $115,000 per year. A second drone is leased from Flying Lion. A third type of drone is owned by the SWAT team, a model airplane-sized “Loki,” which folds to resemble a pair of thin binoculars, with guards on its propellers, better to go inside structures.
“If one of those propellers gets clipped, the drone goes down,” Sprengel said.
Because drones are capable of looking into windows, and even flying through them, is privacy a concern?
The RBPD has received complaints.
“There have been a handful,” said Sprengel, who noted the drones are often showcased at police department public events. “Most people have a good understanding, people have just gotten used to it. I haven’t heard of a complaint since last year.”
RBPD policy governs how drones are used.
“If there is an incident where privacy was compromised I would address it immediately,” Chief Hoffman said.
A drone officer has the authority to record video. Logs are kept for each flight. Motorola records where the drones go, and also their camera views, for 30 days.
“Those aren’t held for evidence,” Sprengel said.
Redondo Beach P.D. has 12 officers trained as drone pilots. Each has an FAA certificate, earned over four days of classes. The next series starts Oct. 24, for five more RBPD officers, and 11 other P.D. employees.
Sprengel, on the force since 2002, got involved by being assigned to it, through his work as Patrol Bureau Chief.
Did he have experience with drones?
I had none,” Sprengel said. “After I saw the capabilities, I was 100 percent in.”
At the time of Brennan’s USC class assignment, a police dog was wounded in Anaheim during a parole check. The dog went into a house and found a suspect behind a garbage can. The man stood up and started shooting.
“A drone has a big de-escalation capacity,” Brennan said. “For a high-risk traffic stop, a drone may fly to the front of the vehicle that’s been pulled over, and look into the windshield. It gives the officer information that they wouldn’t normally have in a typical procedure.”
“In this person-centric society, people think the drone’s spying on them. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s looking for something else,” said Brennan. “None of that data is captured unless for evidentiary purposes.”
A drone conducting a search over a property requires a warrant.
“Generally, it’s used more on the safety side,” Brennan said.
All the while, the launch pilots need to keep an eye on the drone.
“It’s a nice office up there,” said Brennan of the launch spot on BCHD’s roof. “A view of the ocean to one side and, on the other, if it’s clear, you see the mountains. But you’re kind of on your toes.”
The drone’s line of sight range is about one mile during the day – north to Grant/Aviation and south to Torrance Boulevard – and double that at night.
In the dark, launch pilots watch the sky for the drone’s green and red lights. Double-green signifies it is moving away from the launch site. Double-red means it’s moving back towards it. Red and green means it’s hovering.
Brennan graduated from Cal in political science. At Nordstrom, he worked “in the only department that gets to say no, with a smile,” he said.
Flying Lion, now with 15 employees, contracts with police departments in Chula Vista, Palos Verdes Estates, Redondo Beach, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, where it launches drones a block off of Rodeo Drive.
“It’s been a very effective system,” said Chief Hoffman, who can monitor drone activity on his cell phone.
“A mini-helicopter on demand,” said Jordan Weintraub, a Flying Lion remote pilot in command.
What will this be like in five years?
First, the FFA is starting to relax line-of-sight requirements.
“I think you’ll see drones (mounted) on the back of vehicles; more of a network vs. one drone in the air for a specific amount of time,” said Brennan.
He describes a scenario in which a drone could launch from a moving police car, and fly ahead to the location of the call. Or, for a vehicle stopped by police, the drone could launch off of the top of the officer’s car, fly around the suspect’s vehicle – by artificial intelligence, or commanded from the police bureau – to give the officer a view inside.
“The drones have been good for us,” said Sprengel. “We’re lucky to have them. We’re always trying to stay one step ahead.” ER