I know that mass shootings are a controversial topic, but they’re something we need to talk about, even if it sucks. While the political aspect of this brings out strong feelings and heated debate, it’s also important to “think outside the box.” The normal range of “solutions” we see trotted out after a shooting are almost always the same. We always see things like “ban all the guns,” “common sense [insert latest marketing term for gun laws here],” “kids need more Jesus,” and “more good guys with guns.”
The debate will rage on, laws will get passed in some places, courts will strike some (or most) down, and this will happen pretty much the same regardless of what I think or say about it. We all have things we’d like to see happen, but while we’re waiting for that to happen (whatever it is, and perhaps eternally), we should at least be thinking about things that CAN be done today instead of running on that political hamster wheel.
In that spirit, I want to offer a practical solution that law enforcement, event planners, and volunteers with a drone license can use to prevent an attack like we recently saw in Highland Park, Illinois.
Complex Environments Are Hard To Monitor
To explain how electric aviation can help us protect people at mass gatherings in urban and suburban areas, I want to quickly go over what I’ve gathered about the shooting.
The shooter (who we won’t name here because these people thrive on fame) climbed up an unsecured ladder, got on top of a commercial building along the route of an Independence Day parade. From this second-story vantage point, he fired around 70 rounds from a rifle, killing at least seven people (as of this writing) and injuring dozens.
He (assuming those are the right pronouns, given the way he blended in with the crowd to escape) managed to accomplish this because urban and suburban environments can be very complex. There are alleys, little nooks and crannies between buildings, unsecured ladders built into walls, and multiple ways in and out of most places. It’s practically impossible to put eyeballs everywhere in that kind of environment.
If you look at a whole parade route (this can be miles long), there are hundreds or even thousands of places that a terrorist could hide and get a vantage point on a crowd. There are also many places to drop off improvised explosive devices or do other evil things that will hurt a bunch of people.
Allocating Resources To High Risk, Low Frequency Events
While we see mass shootings in the news a lot, we need to keep in mind that we’re talking about a country of 330 million people in thousands of cities, towns, and small towns. On a holiday like Independence Day, most places will have a parade or other celebration where people gather in numbers. Even if every one of these places got every police officer they have to all monitor the event, there’s no way they could see everything from the ground.
Could you get police to come from jurisdictions? In normal times, you could. But, when everyone else is having their own event, there wouldn’t be any to spare to give every little city three-plus times the normal police presence. Plus, no jurisdiction has that kind of a reserve police force, so volunteers generally aren’t an option that could do that, either.
In other words, you couldn’t get enough good guys with guns to cover every event every time.
Even if you could, the vanishingly small chance of this happening at any given gathering just isn’t enough for most places to want to spend the time and money to put armed and trained eyeballs on every alley, rooftop, gap, storm drain, tree , and window along a whole parade route. It’s just not realistic.
But, that doesn’t mean high risk, low frequency events like this aren’t real. Public safety and emergency management personnel need to be ready for this kind of an event, even if it’s unlikely that they’ll see one during an entire career.
Clean Technology Can Make Two People Do The Work Of Hundreds
Fortunately, there’s a zero emission low cost way to make it very difficult for someone to pull off such an attack in your community: a small, lightweight drone.
Under FAA rules, you can now legally fly a small drone over a crowded area if you have the right gear. To keep the cost down, what you’ll want is a Category 1 drone, which means it needs to weigh under 250 grams (.55 pounds), and have no moving surfaces that could lacerate a person in the event of an accident. For “open air assemblies,” you’ll need to be in compliance with the Remote ID requirement if you want to pass directly over.
I don’t know about other brands, but I do know that a DJI Mavic Mini (and its newer variants) meets the weight requirement, and it has been tested for the ability to lacerate human skin (it can’t, and from my own experience, the propeller guards make it more dangerous while putting it over the weight limit). A firmware update should be coming out soon for Mavic Mini drones that give it Remote ID capability, so until then, you’ll need to not pass over the crowd at parades, but you can be nearby.
If you get the Litchi App and put your phone in compatible Google Cardboard VR googles, you can get a first-person view of what the drone sees while seeing things clearly enough to make out details on rooftops, in alleys, etc. You’ll either need a second person other than the pilot to wear the goggles or you’ll need the second person to act as a visual observer so the pilot can wear the goggles. You’ll also want whoever isn’t wearing the goggles, or a third person, to act as security and keep the team safe from being the first target of an attacker.
It’s also important for the team to be in contact with law enforcement, so that anything suspicious can be investigated immediately. A person on a rooftop, a weird character in an alley, or anything else seen from the air can be responded to immediately instead of remaining hidden until it’s too late. Monitoring the area for a while before the event starts is also a wise idea. You’ll need to practice this periodically and come up with ways to communicate the location of suspicious people or objects by radio.
Perhaps more importantly, the deterrent effect of a drone flying around an event can keep an attacker or terrorist from even trying it. You’ll never know if you frightened an attacker away, but that’s a good thing.
Best of all? The whole setup could be put together for under $500 if you shop around. That’s not only far cheaper than a manned helicopter (and more environmentally friendly), but cheaper than a decent new pistol, so it’s well within what even the smallest town’s public safety officials can afford. The work can be done by volunteers, who don’t need to be sworn law enforcement (but it wouldn’t hurt).
This puts much better security in reach almost anywhere.
Featured image: The complex environment where the Highland Park shooting occurred. Screenshot from Google Maps.
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