The NYPD has more than tripled its use of drones in the last year, most recently deploying them 13 different times to monitor public protests last month, according to police data.
Between April and June of this year, the department deployed drones 143 times. Before that, it had never deployed drones more than 50 times in a three-month period, the data shows.
Police handed over drone footage from protests in Times Square and in Bay Ridge last month to prosecutors to use as evidence in criminal charges against 158 people, officials said.
The NYPD’s drone fleet has doubled in size since the program was launched five years ago – from 13 drones then to 30 today, and will continue to expand in the coming years.
New Yorkers attending large-scale events and celebrations are now likely to spot drones hovering overhead. They are being used to scan for sharks off summer beaches, make rescues during storms and capture the scenes of police shootings, police said.
Prosecutors have historically used NYPD drone footage during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and as evidence in other cases like robberies, according to Oren Yaniv, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn district attorney. NYPD Assistant Commissioner Kaz Daughtry, who oversees the department’s new technology, says he hopes one day they will be saving lives by dropping flotation devices to struggling swimmers, and delivering the overdose prevention drug Narcan to people in drug-induced medical distress. Daughtry even said he is researching having drones respond to some crime reports.
But as the NYPD looks to use drones in new ways, some civil liberties activists say they see it as an undemocratic violation of privacy. They, along with a tech policy expert interviewed by Gothamist, point out that no agency outside the NYPD oversees or regulates how the department uses information gathered by drones.
“This is a local police department that increasingly acts like a national intelligence agency,” said Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.
“The idea that you can have a drone hovering over a protest, collecting the identities of every person there, without any oversight, without any protections? That’s unbelievably chilling.”
In an exclusive drone demonstration for Gothamist, NYPD Detective Matthew Andrews-Sales, the NYPD’s head drone pilot, explained that the NYPD’s drone cameras can zoom in on people and objects up to 200x from the air, showing people’s faces clearly. But Daughtry said that function is reserved for New Yorkers committing crimes or infractions.
The NYPD has long maintained that its drones aren’t equipped with facial recognition software – technology that has led people to be falsely accused of crimes elsewhere. But police can run drone footage through facial recognition software back at police headquarters. Department officials said that a police detective manually reviews every facial match before police move to make an arrest.
The NYPD deletes drone footage after 30 days unless it’s being used to investigate an alleged crime like the Bay Ridge protest, and that the drones it currently uses cannot record audio, Daughtry said.
Some tech policy experts consider drones to be among the least invasive policing strategies — as long as police aren’t using them to mass identify every person at a protest.
“[Drones] don’t really give anything other than a different vantage point,” said Adam Scott Wandt, vice chair for technology of the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The police have cameras on poles and on top of cars everywhere anyway.”
“You should be expecting the government to be taking pictures of you from every angle.”
How the program works
The NYPD’s Technical Assistance Response Unit, which is headquartered at an old army base in Queens, already uses drones for a range of purposes. Officers used drones this summer to measure crowd size at J’Ouvert and the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn and the Electric Zoo festival on Randall’s Island, Daughtry said. In September, police said they used a drone to help rescue someone trapped inside their car as heavy rains flooded the city’s roadways. The drone footage was streamed to police headquarters, and officers deployed police and firefighters to help the driver exit safely.
The NYPD also uses drones to capture scenes of police shootings, Daughtry said. They capture 360-degree visuals of buildings and streets, and the department pairs it with officer body-worn camera footage and then shows it to the commissioner for review.
A live feed from the drones is screened at the police headquarters in Lower Manhattan, where dozens of officers monitor video from tens of thousands of police cameras across the five boroughs. Law enforcement officials in the field can also view the live drone feeds from their cellphones or iPads, Daughtry said.
Mayor Eric Adams has championed police drones in part because he says they save the city money. While flying an NYPD helicopter costs up to $2,200 per flight, he said launching a drone costs just 17 cents. Some drones tethered to police cars can run on vehicle gasoline, Daughtry said.
Program has been veiled in secrecy
The NYPD has been tight-lipped about its use of drones, saying that revealing too much about the technology and when it is deployed could compromise police investigations. Officials have refused to share information on surveillance and technology products it has purchased, keeping contracts “offline” and out of the public eye. A state Supreme Court justice last month granted a request from the Legal Aid Society to access historically opaque NYPD “special expense” budget contracts for various electronic surveillance technologies — which could reveal more about policing technology and how it is used.
Federal drone law says that “no person may operate a small unmanned aircraft over a human being.” But the NYPD has an exemption waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration through August 2025 that allows it to fly drones in populated areas, at night, over 400 feet in the air, among other things.
The NYPD is also required to get special FAA authorization to fly its drones in certain cases, according to FAA spokesperson Arlene Salac. When asked for specific information about how often the NYPD flies its drones and for what purpose, Salac declined to say and asked Gothamist to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.
NYC drones fleet continues to expand
The NYPD paid $87,750 in June for a Lemur 2 drone manufactured by Seattle-based drone company BRINC, according to city records. Lemur 2 drones have night vision and thermal sensors. They can break glass to enter buildings and recreate floor plans with 360-degree views, which police say can be used for situations like the April parking garage collapse. The drones can even facilitate two-way audio conversations between officers and anyone inside a building.
BRINC Founder and CEO Blake Resnick said the NYPD has not yet received its Lemur 2 drone.
Adams has been a loud proponent of drones since his days as Brooklyn Borough President when he pushed for a bill in 2019 that would allow drones to conduct building inspections. As mayor last fall, he met with the founders of two Israeli drone companies who said their autonomous drones are used by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol the Mexican border, as well as by the Israel Defense Forces at the border of Gaza, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. The city has not yet entered into a deal with either of these companies, according to the mayor’s spokesperson Charles Lutvak.
Adams and Daughtry also reviewed new drone technology in Israel while visiting the country’s National Police Academy in August. The NYPD has a long history of training with Israeli law enforcement, according to Detective Charlie Ben-Naim, a department liaison stationed in Tel Aviv. Israel is at the forefront of using drones as first responders, Daughtry said, and serves as inspiration for his plans to increase the NYPD’s drone fleet.
“We’re not looking for grandma’s secret recipe sauce that she’s putting on a grill. We’re not looking to see if you’re making hamburgers or hot dogs. We’re out there using drones to fight crime,” Daughtry said.