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What to expect at APSCON 2023

By Treena Hein

Published on: July 17, 2023
Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 26 seconds.

APSA executive director Dan Schwarzbach highlights the latest trends and key issues in public safety aviation that are at the center of APSCON 2023.

APSCON 2023 and APSCON Unmanned 2023 — formerly the Public Safety Drone Expo — is taking place concurrently in Orlando, Florida, the week of July 17 to 22. For a behind-the-scenes preview, Vertical Valor caught up with Dan Schwarzbach, executive director of the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA), which organizes APSCON.

Drones provide the tactical advantage of an aerial perspective that only agencies operating traditional aviation units have enjoyed in the past. Scott Dworkin Photo

“We’re very excited about being back in full swing,” Schwarzbach said. “After losing 2020 to the pandemic, we had some good numbers at APSCON 2021 and 2022 in Reno, but we are expecting higher numbers, maybe the highest yet, this year — at least 1,500. Orlando is always a good draw for us, and we haven’t been there in 10 years.”

As always, the top APSCON priorities are education, networking and exposing attendees to new technologies at the tradeshow, which will feature about 175 exhibitors and up to 15 aircraft.

Courses and networking

“Training is paramount for us,” Schwarzbach explained. “This year, we’re particularly excited to see what our new program managers, Terry Palmer and Cory DeArmitt, are going to bring to the mix. Terry is our new training program manager. She has run several flight schools and brings a lot of expertise from outside public safety aviation. Cory is a special agent in law enforcement in South Carolina and our safety program manager.”

Courses will run Monday to Wednesday, and will include the Tactical Flight Officer Course, Airborne Thermographer Course, Unit Manager Course, and other standard offerings. Schwarzbach said registration was already filling up for many of them, such as the Unit Manager Course. New unit managers, he explained, need to hit the ground running because many of them are coming from law enforcement management positions, and aviation unit management is completely new.

Networking at APSCON is just as important as education. “You’ll pick up the names of people you’ll need to call in order to do your job,” Schwarzbach said. “Some of our exhibitors always hold dedicated networking events. Bell Helicopter, for example, is sponsoring our opening reception Wednesday night and FLIR will be giving out their Vision Awards at their event Thursday night. We also have MD Helicopters, Airbus and Trakka all organizing events.”

Trends in public safety aviation

Schwarzbach and his colleagues are now seeing more search-and-rescue teams in the U.S. and beyond adding helicopters to their resources, which they consider a very positive development.

APSA executive director Dan Schwarzbach said he’s excited to be back in full swing with the APSCON and APSCON Unmanned tradeshow. Brent Bundy Photo

“Many years ago when APSA started in the late 1960s, the U.S. government had a program to build capacity for police departments and one of the allowable purchases was aircraft,” he explained. “That was our original pool of members. Then, some fire departments got helicopters. Now, mostly on the west coast of the U.S., search-and-rescue units are getting them, too.”

It also seems to Schwarzbach that more and more twin-engine helicopters are being purchased, due to more capabilities in hoisting and because the extra engine provides a higher safety/comfort level. 

Another trend is the growing use of unmanned aircraft in public safety. With only about 350 law enforcement agencies out of 18,000 across the country having access to a manned aircraft, drones provide the tactical advantage of an aerial perspective that only agencies operating traditional aviation units have enjoyed in the past. 

Among the trends in public safety aviation, APSA is seeing more search-and-rescue in the U.S. adding helicopters to their resources. Dan Megna Photo

“The numbers of drones in public safety aviation are going to grow rapidly,” Schwarzbach said. “Drones can provide an amazing amount of critical information, enhancing efficiency of response and increasing safety. For firefighters, drones let them see the roof, look for hotspots and so on. With police situations, drones can provide a huge range of critical information.”

How best to integrate the use of drones with traditional public safety aerial operations is something that APSA is actively working on with various partners — and there will be a session on this at APSCON on Thursday. Indeed, APSA has been in the unmanned space since 2007.

“Early on, we spent a lot of time with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] and Department of Justice to initiate drone use in the National Air Space [NAS] by law enforcement and academia,” Schwarzbach said. “We worked hard to build awareness of all the advantages that drones could provide in public safety scenarios.”

For several years, APSA held a separate unmanned expo in the fall, but missed two years due to the pandemic. Bringing it back in 2022, APSA decided to rebrand it as APSCON Unmanned and conduct it concurrently with APSCON. Based on the success of last year’s event, both shows will be sharing the exhibit hall again in 2023. APSCON Unmanned consists of two days of courses and one day of a choice of classes.

Schwarzbach explained that in the absence of the FAA establishing a practical exam related to flying unmanned aircraft, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has created test methods to measure pilot proficiency in specific and measurable ways.

“They now have basic, advanced and confined space test methods, but cannot issue certificates,” he said, “so two years ago, we partnered with them to be the certificate-issuing body based on those test methods.”

Key issues going forward

APSA is also working to address concerns related to the increasing integration of drones into public safety operations, including those related to privacy. For example, with others, APSA has already created a best practices policy on how drone use in a public safety context should be introduced to the community. This includes being open with the public, working with local representatives of civil liberties groups and going to events to educate and familiarize.

At the same time, however, APSA has its own concerns about privacy-related legislation. In some states, some bills with concerning parts are being presented that address privacy issues relating to drones, but also include manned aircraft in the wording, such as a recently-failed bill in Missouri.

Education, networking and new technology are the highlights of this year’s APSCON and APSCON Unmanned tradeshow, which will feature about 175 exhibitors and up to 15 aircraft. Trevor Riley Photo

Legislation that relates to drone technology itself is also a

“In Florida, it’s now illegal for public safety agencies
to operate drones based on the country of origin,” Schwarzbach said. “That bill came out of the blue. So now, we have a
situation there where drones made by a certain manufacturer, which makes about 85% of the law enforcement drones used across the U.S., were bought with taxpayer money and are currently shelved. We’ve been working through this issue for Florida and some other states.”

And as the technology continues to evolve, it makes it more challenging for appropriate legislation to keep pace. Autonomous operation of drones is coming rapidly, which will add tremendous capability but will also need careful management in terms of legislation and use policies.

“Imagine, when a call comes in for a fire or law enforcement issue, one or more drones will automatically launch, travel to the site and start feeding information back to those on their way or those just arriving on scene,” Schwarzbach said. “It will enable a much more focused response and avoid efforts that won’t make a difference or might make things worse. This will also enable better decisions about the use of the helicopters and other resources. But there will have to be laws and policies about the footage taken, how that data is used, where it’s stored and for how long, and so on.”

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