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Drone operator drops plans to surveil Gravois Park, aims to move to a new St. Louis neighborhood

Jake Lyonfields, 31, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, near Gravois Park. Lyonfields is organizing a petition with members of the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association in response to SMS Novel’s, religious filmmaking company based in Washington D.C., efforts to launch a live drone surveillance operation later in January.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Jake Lyonfields, 31, poses for a portrait on Thursday in Gravois Park. Lyonfields is organizing a petition with members of the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association in response to SMS Novel’s efforts to launch a live drone surveillance operation in the area.

Updated at 11:55 a.m. Jan. 12 with the end of SMS Novel’s beta-test plan in Gravois Park

Filmmaking company SMS Novel announced on X on Friday that it won’t launch a crime-surveillance drone beta test in St. Louis. In the company’s response to a cease-and-desist letter from the City of St. Louis, it wrote that drones will operate in another neighborhood at a later date. Residents of Gravois Park said they’re “breathing a sigh of relief this morning.” They’re still working to prevent the company from obtaining a business license and to increase drone regulation. SMS Novel declined to comment further.

Original story from Jan. 12

Residents of the Gravois Park neighborhood in St. Louis are outraged that a religious filmmaking company is flying drones over the area and planning to expand its operation later this month to capture security footage.

SMS Novel, of Washington, D.C., plans to livestream footage of Gravois Park from Jan. 29 to Feb. 13 when it does more testing. Its founder has said he aims to detect and deter crime.

Residents are upset that the drones would be conducting surveillance over their homes and have asked city officials to stop the company.

“We don't want it, nobody wants it,” Jake Lyonfields said. “We can have well-intentioned conversations about public safety, but in this particular situation, nobody's for it.”

Earlier this week, the city sent SMS Novel a cease-and-desist order and told the company it would need to obtain city permits to fly drones over public roads, sidewalks and parks — and obtain $1 million in liability insurance. The company’s founder vows to launch the drones anyway.

“Our operators have been in St. Louis for close to two months now,” Jomo Johnson said in an audio message to the Gravois Park Neighborhood Association. “You haven't noticed anything, I don't believe, and it will be the same way when we're doing the beta testing.”

Security cameras in Gravois Park on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024. SMS Novel’s, religious filmmaking company based in Washington D.C., plans to launch a drone surveillance operation in Gravois Park later in January. Earlier this week, the city issued a cease-and-desist order and told the company it would need to obtain permits and obtain $1 million in liability insurance.
Eric Lee
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Security cameras on Thursday in Gravois Park. SMS Novel, a religious filmmaking company based in Washington, D.C., ran into opposition to its drone surveillance plan.

The company chose St. Louis, Memphis and Los Angeles for its surveillance program. Johnson said that he will provide a free livestream of the flight from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and that the drones have technology that will “prevent, detect and we believe deflect potential criminal activities in real time.”

A St. Louis police officer told residents Monday that felony thefts, burglaries and aggravated assaults are a growing problem in Gravois Park.

Lyonfields, who has lived in the area since 2016, said he’s gathered more than 100 signatures from residents who are opposed to the drones.

“Not one person that we spoke with was in favor of a private, for-profit drone surveillance scheme in Gravois Park,” he said.

The city will insist that Johnson obtain the necessary approvals, said Jared Boyd, chief of staff for Mayor Tishaura Jones.

“He has not obtained the proper city permits to operate in St. Louis. To do something as novel as this will require the approval of our Board of Public Service,” Boyd said, “We stand willing and ready to enforce that cease-and-desist order, whether it's using it for beta testing now, or when he purportedly goes live later this month.”

In response to the residents’ concerns, St. Louis Alderwoman Alisha Sonnier plans to introduce a bill Friday that would restrict drone flights over public parks, streets and sidewalks.

“It makes it so that if you want to put a drone over a city event, you have to get permission from the operators of that city event,” Sonnier said. “Also, it makes it so that you can't operate in a no-fly zone, which this legislation creates.”

Lauren Brennecke is a senior studying journalism and media studies at Webster University. She is a Fall '23 Newsroom Intern at St. Louis Public Radio.