A cop holds a drone aloft just as it’s about to take flight. The words “AI-pilot assistance for your flying supercomputer,” flash across the screen. Bassy electronic music plays.
These are the opening moments of a promotional video made by Skydio, a California-based drone company that sells to police, the US military, and enterprise surveyors and infrastructure companies. At first glance, the video is just another generic tech ad from a company that proposes, among other things, to use increasingly-automated drones to surveil American cities. But the cop in the ad is a real police officer named David Cameron, who runs Campbell, California’s drone program. His participation in the video is just a small, public example of his promotion of the company, both publicly and behind the scenes; of the very close relationship that Skydio and companies like it have with their law enforcement clients; and of the increasingly blurry line between “public servant” and corporate cheerleader.
Over the last few years, Cameron has exchanged hundreds of emails with Skydio officials and has evangelized for the company in video advertisements, industry webinars, internally at the Campbell Police Department, and with a third-party financial research firm called Blue Heron Research Partners. He has given customer testimonials for internal Skydio sales team events. He was even invited to the company’s Slack as a single-channel guest, according to an invite obtained by Motherboard. Cameron is also the public safety director and instructor at 21CLETS, a small drone consultancy for first responders at which he is one of just a few employees; training courses cost from $75 to $500. He has set up meetings between drone companies like Skydio and AXON and 21CLETS using his police email address.
“Will you be in uniform / willing to appear in the video?,” a Skydio representative wrote to Cameron about a “traffic stop demo” video it was hoping to shoot, according to an email obtained by Motherboard. “[Skydio employee] James is a cinema wizard and will have you looking like Brad Pitt, but understand if you can’t do that. Would love to have a uniformed officer in the video somehow—let me know if we can launch you into a second career in Hollywood!”
Skydio has been good at creating fans among cops who then help the company sell its products, according to a cache of thousands of presentations, emails, contracts, and webinars obtained by Motherboard from 11 police departments around the country. The amount of communication between Skydio and a few specific police departments is staggering. A records request sent to the Chula Vista Police Department in California, for example, returned 634 pages of emails for the month of February 2020 alone, and several thousand pages of emails over the course of 2020 and early 2021.
Skydio told Motherboard that making sure its public-safety clients are happy is normal for the industry and that it needs to make sure its technology works, but the emails reviewed by Motherboard show that some police officers have become superfans of Skydio and are regularly helping to sell or promote its products to their colleagues in other departments.
Skydio has hired at least one police officer: William “Fritz” Reber, of the Chula Vista, California police department. He has since leveraged his contacts there and in other departments to get Skydio drones into many other police departments. Skydio has also worked directly with its law enforcement clients to submit paperwork to the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, that would make it easier for cops to fly Skydio drones with fewer restrictions.
Police officers have acted as Skydio’s boosters—participating in marketing stunts, emailing each other about free drone programs, providing space and officers to shoot Skydio demos, strategizing with the company on how to best get official waivers to FAA drone guidelines, and helping massage stories in the New York Times and Financial Times, the emails show. The tactics deployed by Skydio are similar to those we’ve seen from Amazon’s Ring, which has sought to convince cops of the utility of their product and then turn those cops into evangelists or, in some cases, employees.
“Skydio is proud of the role our drones play in supporting first responders, from aiding life-saving rescue missions, to documenting and clearing accident scenes in record time, to making officers and the communities they serve safer,” a company spokesperson told Motherboard in a statement. “We engage regularly with law enforcement officials around the country to provide access to cutting-edge drone technology, develop and share best practices for the responsible use of drones, and solicit feedback on how we can adapt and improve our solutions to better suit the needs of agencies and their communities. Fostering open customer dialogue is at the core of Skydio’s mission, and helps us provide our customers the best technology solutions possible—whether they’re inspecting a bridge, filming an adventure or protecting the public.”
There are obvious benefits for Skydio in having a close relationship with its customers. These customers, though, are police officers who are supposed to work to protect and serve the public. Their work as beta testers and quasi-salespeople for surveillance tech operations greases the wheels for Skydio to sell their products to communities all over the country—even as taxpayers and ordinary people become unwitting guinea pigs for increasingly autonomous surveillance technology.
Skydio has set up a mailing list for cops and first responders called “Skydio Tactical Advisory Committee (STAC),” which reaches hundreds of officers from dozens of police departments across the country. Reber, who is now Skydio’s head of public safety integration, often emails this list asking for favors, or asking for material that can be used to market Skydio. Cops on this list are offered the chance to test new features, such as Skydio’s 3D mapping capabilities. They are also asked to fill out Google forms about their experiences with Skydio drones, serving as essentially beta testers for the company.
One email sent by Reber in January 2021 seeking marketing material went to 210 different people, the overwhelming majority of them police officers, with a few fire department officials, city government officials, and Gmail or private industry email addresses sprinkled in. The recipients included law enforcement in New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Charlotte, Tampa, and Tulsa, as well as employees of various small and mid-sized city police departments and a member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Reber was seeking footage or examples for a web series that would serve as a “marketing and product research exercise for Skydio,” and said “we are open to working with departments to financially subsidize overtime or equipment costs associated with this filming.”
“We are not asking for any explicit endorsement, but rather support in facilities and personnel for filming the series. We will however give proper credit for any support that is provided as validation of your agency being forward thinking in the advancement of the drone industry,” he continued. Skydio was looking to film and promote a series of somewhat elaborate scenarios including a search and rescue scenario “(possibly with boat crews, remote location in rugged terrain, or large park),” crime scene or accident reconstruction, “tactical de-escalation,” “situational awareness,” or “Drone as First Responder” with a Skydio drone taking off from a police station or firehouse.
In another email, Reber asked STAC members to help “coordinate regional demo events.”
“Ideally the event would be at a venue that can support attendance of 50+ people and allows us to fly,” he said. “PS, our request for volunteers to host the public safety marketing team to film marketing videos have been very successful. One of the two locations has completed the shoot and the other is this month. We should have the content out soon. Thanks to all who volunteered!”
In another Reber email sent on April 9, 2021, he asked for after action reports (AARs) from a smaller group of police departments about how they were using Skydio. “Skydio is looking for anyone willing to come on a webinar and share a good use case story,” he said. “In the meantime please continue to send AARs here as you think of it, the engineering team likes to see issues and the marketing team likes to see good use cases.”
Skydio told Motherboard that STAC is “an informal community of first responders who provide feedback on product requirements and performance,” and that its close relationships with law enforcement are similar to relationships many enterprise companies have with their clients.
“We always look to hire top talent to help us develop great products and better serve our customers based on the needs of specific sectors. Our team includes experts who come from all of the major markets we serve,” a Skydio spokesperson said, though they declined to comment on specific relationships with specific police departments. “Skydio collaborates with customers to understand their drone needs and share the value they receive from our products. These collaborations are entirely voluntary and are not compensated.”
Skydio’s relationship with Chula Vista goes beyond a company-client relationship. Skydio said that the two were formal partners in a now-finished FAA drone program intended to test the integration of drones into the national airspace.
STAC is hardly the only way Skydio engages with law enforcement. A hundred cops were, for example, offered free drones during the summer of 2020 at the height of the pandemic through Vern Sallee, a former police officer in Chula Vista, California who kept in close contact with Reber. “Good afternoon…friends, I hope all is well with each of you during these difficult times,” Sallee wrote in an email to colleagues. “A friend and former colleague of mine works for Skydio and runs their Public Safety Emergency Response Program (ERP). Skydio is giving public safety agencies 100 Skydio 2 public safety drone kits to agencies for use in the COVID crisis. These kits are valued at about $2,200 so they could add real value to your agency’s drone program.” Forbes first reported that Skydio offered free drones to law enforcement during the pandemic.
The former officer linked to a Google form where responders could request their drone, requesting they write a short narrative about how they would use it.
According to Skydio, ERP participants’ “commitment to protecting privacy and civil liberties” was taken into account when deciding which agencies would get the drones.
One of the reasons Skydio is so popular with law enforcement is that it makes so-called “blue drones”—drones that the Pentagon has recognized as trusted and secure. Skydio has positioned itself as an American-made alternative to DJI, the Chinese industry giant. Skydio and the Pentagon claim that its drones are part of a supply chain divorced from China and are thus inherently secure from potential Chinese spying. Its drones are “Manufactured in the USA,” according to its website.
Brendan Groves, Skydio’s vice president of regulatory and policy affairs, joined the company from the U.S. Department of Justice and quickly reached out to Brent Ingraham, a Pentagon official he knew from his time at the DOJ and who is now responsible in part for military buying and acquisition. In the email, he noted that he had recently met with the US Air Force to discuss the use of Skydio drones. “We’ve provided our bill of materials to the USAF,” Groves wrote. “We make the drone in California, design our own software in house, and source our core processors from US companies. Even so, there are some minor commodity components (like the plastic in our gimbal) that is made in China. (We’re still far more secure than Apple iPhones, which are designed here but made in China, as you know.)”
This email was eventually forwarded to officials at the Chula Vista Police Department—Reber’s former department. It’s unclear who, exactly, sent the DOJ emails to the Chula Vista PD, but CVPD officials then promoted Skydio to other departments. For example, a purchasing memo from the La Mesa, California Police Department arguing for Skydio drones notes that they learned about Skydio from Chula Vista, and that it’s a good option because, “according to a recent Department of Homeland Security bulletin, … Chinese-based drone platforms offered for sale and in use in the US have the potential to pose a significant data security risk to the user.” The officer said that they had recently gotten a free drone from Skydio through Reber’s ERP program, and wanted to buy three more, for a total cost of $8,134.25. “Approved!,” the La Mesa Police Department chief hand-wrote at the top of the memo.
A video about Chula Vista’s drone program that has been shared with other police departments gives greater insight into what these drones are actually doing. The “Drones as First Responders” program immediately puts a drone into the air for certain situations, allowing police to assess what’s happening. The video shows police flying drones while standing on the roof of a building, and shows that its drones are used to, for example, follow suspects in a motorcycle chase, guide officers into a building, or help “arrest without incident.”
One clip in the video simply shows a man climbing out of a swimming pool and states “suspect falls into a pool.” Another shows what appears to be surveillance of a farmers market or street fair, titled “major event overwatch.” Another is about surveillance of a “medical emergency,” and another, subtitled “mental health-related incidents,” shows a person walking in the street.
It’s clear that the Chula Vista Police Department—which acknowledged multiple requests for comment but did not provide comment (a subsequent public records request seeking information about our request for comment did not return any useful documents)—is proud of its drone program.
When Skydio hired Reber in 2019, he had already set up one of the country’s most complex and prolific police drone surveillance programs in Chula Vista while working as an officer. At Skydio, Reber continues to talk regularly with his former colleagues. Skydio employees and Chula Vista police officers send dozens of emails between each other monthly. They talk extensively about how to frame the technology in interviews with journalists and exult in good press coverage.
Chula Vista PD put cops from Fort Lee, New Jersey in touch with Reber. “William ‘Fritz’ Reber is our retired captain who was the brainchild of [Drones as First Responders],” a Chula Vista police Lieutenant said in an email to Fort Lee police. “He now works for Skydio and can provide you with information about the Skydio2 drones (which our operators LOVE.)”
Chula Vista PD collected press links about its drone program and sent them along to Skydio. In March, 2020, the Financial Times reported that Chula Vista was using drones to patrol the city and enforce a pandemic lockdown. Then-CVPD Captain Vern Sallee wrote a letter in response to the piece, which the FT published. Sallee then sent the message to Reber and Skydio, highlighting the positive coverage. He even screenshotted the letter and sent it on when Skydio told him they couldn’t access it behind the FT paywall.
When the Washington Examiner aggregated the FT story, Sallee was upset with the coverage. He reached out to the Examiner, demanded it make corrections, then bragged to Skydio about what he’d done. “FYI, I was able to get the worst of the stories corrected,” Sallee said in a March 25, 2020 email to Reber and Skydio executive Brendan Groves. “They refused to correct the record yesterday after I sent the press release, but I followed up today with specifics that hit them pretty hard on the facts…they changed the headline and made the story much more positive. Big win for the industry and police. Just keeping you in the loop.”
When the New York Times’s Cade Metz wanted to do a piece on Chula Vista’s drone program, Sallee collaborated with Skydio to make it happen. Chula Vista law enforcement exchanged dozens of emails with Metz setting up logistics, but also exchanged many emails with Skydio and a PR firm Skydio hired called Aircover PR to get on the same page about what they would show the Times: “NY Times might be a big article??,” one police officer wrote to Skydio. “Maybe you bring the X2E for us to show off. :)”
Ultimately, Skydio and Chula Vista agreed that Skydio should not have a representative present when the Times visited because having the company involved might seem less authentic. “Thanks so much for accommodating Cade’s visit and interview about your use of Skydio drones. We’re very excited to be spotlighting Chula Vista’s drone program in your article with him,” a Skydio executive emailed Chula Vista after the visit. “Thank you so much for your help as we prepare for our announcements on 7/13 (associated with the NYT piece we previously worked on),” the executive emailed Sallee later, seeking review of a press release Skydio was getting ready to release.
“We’re really starting to rack up the victories together here and this partnership has been an absolute dream.”
The New York Times declined to comment for this article.
In February 2020, Skydio was going to conduct a demonstration for the city of Reno and Reber reached out to his old colleagues at Chula Vista PD. “I was hoping I could borrow two of the Skydio’s from the Chula Vista Police Department,” Reber said in an email to the Chula Vista PD. “It will gain media attention and it would be beneficial to have photos of the Chula Vista police drones.”
In another email, Reber asked the Chula Vista Police Department to discuss the “last 10 Chula Vista Police Department Officer Involved Shootings” to see if a drone “would/could have impacted outcomes? (obviously careful not to assign blame etc) … just seems like a real world eval of the potential to change outcomes going forward. Thoughts?” Skydio said police have had success in using drones to de-escalate armed standoffs, for example.
David Cameron, the police officer in Campbell, California, also has a cozy relationship with Skydio. Not only has he appeared in marketing videos and photographs for the company, but in January, 2021, the Blue Heron Research Group—a NYC-based consulting firm that “conducts due diligence for institutional investors”—reached out to Cameron to get his thoughts on Skydio’s drones.
Before he answered Blue Heron, Cameron made sure Skydio was OK with him talking. “Do you know if this will benefit Skydio,” Cameron said in an email to Skydio Product Marketing Manager Guillaume Delphine. He forwarded Blue Heron’s request.
“Hey thanks for the head’s up—it’s most likely that it will, but I ran it by Adam(CEO) just to make sure,” Delphine said in response. “Let you know what he says. Most likely means they have private equity client looking to buy us or one of our competitors.”
“Just let me know whether you want me to actually talk to them or not. I really don’t care,” Cameron responded. “If it benefits Skydio I will.”
Skydio told Motherboard that Cameron has never been compensated for his work with the drone maker. “Skydio collaborates with customers to understand their drone needs and share
the value they receive from our products,” it said in an email. “These collaborations are entirely voluntary.” Skydio said Cameron was one of several customers that Blue Heron spoke to.
“The City of Campbell has not been compensated in any way by Skydio,” Ian White, a captain of the Campbell Police Department, told Motherboard in an email. He said that CPD was “at the forefront of innovation and technology in law enforcement.”
According to White, the city is using drones in high-risk situations such as “barricaded wanted subjects, area searches for wanted felons and at-risk missing persons, and building searches.”
He added that Campbell has seven drones, only two of them come from Skydio, and that Campbell has never tested nor does it plan to test Skydo’s 3D mapping technologies. “We became aware that Officer Cameron has been alpha testing 3D scan technology for Skydio; however, not while on duty, using any City owned drones or while being compensated by the City,” White said.
“The Campbell Police Department has policies regarding secondary employment and the use of City email and resources that we expect all employees to abide by and will hold all employees accountable to,” he said. “I am unable to comment any further regarding this as it is a personnel issue.”
Motherboard asked Skydio how many police departments it was working with. “We do not publicly disclose this information,” it said.
According to the document, “trials will use existing dispatch software and CAD mapping with a laptop networked from a cellular hotspot. This dispatch software will identify the caller location and display it. The drone operator on the roof will manually enter this and the drone will fly to this location.”
Campbell is testing a number of drones this way, including the DJI M300 and H20T as well as the Skydio X2. But Cameron has a special interest in the Skydio X2 for a number of reasons. “Axon is the market leader in police and first responder body cameras,” the document said. “Skydio and Axon have a partnership to integrate body camera and drone camera footage.” (Axon is, indeed, an industry leader in body cameras. It also manufactures the taser.)
The autonomous drone tests are still limited by the operator needing to see the drones at all times to be compliant with FAA regulations. They still have to put an officer on top of a building. But Silicon Valley is working on that. According to the document, it wants to create a digital visual observer—a manually-operated drone that watches the autonomous drone. “This would be the robust system that can eliminate the FAA requirement for having a physical observer in line of sight of flying drones,” the document said. “Which is ineffective, a waste of time and manpower, but it’s still the law.”
“Our products are designed to get the most out of human judgment and creativity, not eliminate it,” Skydio told Motherboard. “Especially in the critical situations first responders encounter, human judgment is indispensable. By making drones safer and easier to fly, while automating complex tasks like 3D dimensional scene inspection, we enable first responders to focus on the task, and the safety of the communities they serve, not the details of piloting a drone.”
Cameron isn’t the only officer who’s helped Skydio in its attempts to get FAA waivers. In February 2020, then-Chula Vista PD Captain Sallee reached out to Skydio for help with the FAA. “Wanna make sure we’re all aligned on FAA strategies,” Sallee said in an email to Skydio. “I’d be interested to get your input on strategies to knock down some regulatory barriers.”
Also in February 2020, Reber shared an article from the controversial and conspiratorial Zero Hedge blog that alleged China was using drones to enforce quarantine zones with Sallee, Delepine, and another CVPD officer. “Pretty incredible article/ videos,” Reber wrote. “The FAA would freak.”
Later that month, the FAA was putting together a meeting to discuss UAV regulations. “Yikes,” Sallee wrote to Reber and other people in a long chain of emails about the meeting. “Yes we need to have some of us at each. Kabe and Fritz, thoughts on how to tackle this? Where should I be or who leads the DC contingent?” Skydio told Motherboard these communications were part of its formal partnership with Chula Vista under an FAA pilot program.
In another email, Sallee offered to help Skydio at an upcoming conference.“FYI, for the Tri County Spring Workshop in Palm Springs,” Sallee wrote to Skydio employees from his Chula Vista PD email address. “It’s all Chiefs from San Diego, Orange [County] and Los Angeles. At least around 50+ decision makers all in one room…We can present for 35 minutes, do 10 minutes Q&A and then give you guys 10-15 minutes of Skydio time as a sponsor (I think the Chief said that it was $5,000). There is a 15 minute break right afterward so you could go to the atrium or nearby area to demo for any interested parties.”
Sallee retired from the force four months later and took a job with Axon. Six months after that, Axon announced it was partnering with Skydio to work on autonomous drones. Sallee did not respond to a request for comment.