The machine hovered above us, at the edge of a cloud of yellow smoke billowing into the sky from a mock hazardous-waste spill. A member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Bomb Squad stood next to me, watching the scene from a protected space behind a concrete wall. If you don’t know what’s in the smoke, his colleague had explained to me earlier, then you don’t necessarily want to approach with a human-response team. Instead, scenarios like this are perfect for a drone. The aircraft’s four rotors suddenly whirred as it banked to the right to give its remote operator a better view. The ominously colored smoke was now spreading.
The morning was overcast, marked by moments of light rain. I had been invited to watch a test run of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s recent acquisition, a quadcopter drone that had been in service for a little more than a year. With its own custom-painted body shell, emblazoned with the single word, RESCUE, in red block caps, the drone looked sleek—cute, even. The Sheriff’s Department made the choice deliberately, to give the potentially threatening technology a Pixar-like approachability.
At a time when police SWAT teams have become known for training videos soundtracked by death metal, seeing an aircraft such as this buzzing outside your apartment window might not immediately inspire dread. Somewhere between fight and flight, I realized, there was an altogether different sort of reaction: As soon as I saw this charismatic machine being prepped for takeoff, I took out my phone and snapped a picture. The choice of the word RESCUE was, of course, no accident: It simply compounded the sheriffs’ intended message that this is a tool that comes in peace.