A law enforcement unmanned aerial system, or drone. 
 -  Photo via Getty Images

A law enforcement unmanned aerial system, or drone.

Photo via Getty Images

Few law enforcement technologies have grown faster than unmanned aerial systems (UAS), what most people call drones.

In 2014, POLICE ran an article ("Drones Grounded Until Further Notice," October 2014) about how law enforcement use of drones was stymied by a combination of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations and civil liberty concerns. Now, four years later, it’s estimated that a thousand or more agencies are operating drones.

This massive growth in law enforcement use of drones can be traced to the FAA relaxing its requirement for agencies operating drones. You still have to jump through some hoops to start a UAS program, but the hoops are not nearly as narrow or as many as they were in 2014.

Certified air traffic controller Michael Hamann explained these regulations in detail in an article earlier this year titled "How to Implement and Justify a Drone Program."

Essentially there are two processes through which public safety agencies can gain licensing from the FAA that allows them to fly drones commercially: certificate of authorization (COA) or Part 107 regulations. An agency must choose which process it wishes to follow, and it can't do both.

The COA requires the applying agency to thoroughly document and self-certify their drones, pilots, and intended locations of operation. The Part 107 exemption requires less work than the COA process but it has more restrictions. Hamann wrote: "Drones operated under Part 107 must weigh less than 55 pounds and be registered as aircraft. Operators of the drone must be certified as remote pilot operators with a small UAS rating. Once this process is complete, the agency is permitted to operate its drone in accordance with the provisions of Part 107, including obtaining instant airspace waivers through the future Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) program."

What relaxed regulations under Part 107 have meant for law enforcement is that numerous agencies are now capable of using small drones in their operations. Even the smallest hobby drones can have application in police work. And the price of more sophisticated drones, the type that have infrared imaging and other powerful tools on board, has dropped substantially.

The list of applications for drones in law enforcement operations is growing. But they are proving to be most valuable for the following missions:

Search and Rescue

Earlier this year, the Moore County (NC) Sheriff's Office was able to rescue an 11-year-old girl who wandered away into the woods. Lt. Tim Davis brought one of the agency's drones to the scene and flew it over the wooded area and 15 minutes later was able to detect the girl using the drone's thermal imaging system. She was found safe and asleep under thick brush in an area that had already been searched by teams on the ground. Moore County Sheriff Neil Godfrey told local media that it would have taken 45 minutes or more to bring a helicopter on scene. The drone gave the Moore County SO an air asset that it could deploy quickly and prevent a possible tragedy.

Crime Scene and Accident Scene Imaging

In the past, crime scene investigators and accident investigators had to call in a helicopter in order to get a bird's-eye view of the area. That was an expensive call and one that many agencies were reluctant to make because of budget constraints. Drones are so much cheaper to operate that aerial imaging of accident scenes and outdoor crimes scenes is becoming standard practice at some agencies. Drones can be equipped with 3D imaging systems and can capture the entire scene in a similar fashion to a ground-based 3D scanning system. The data can then be measured, animated, and combined with ground-based 3D scans to create an entire picture of the scene for evidence and courtroom presentations.

Intelligence Gathering at Critical Incidents

Drones can be used to scout a location before a tactical operation such as a high-risk warrant service, to inspect disaster damage, to provide surveillance during an active shooter attack to help locate the shooter, and a host of other eye-in-the-sky missions.

Enhancing Security at Big Events

After the horrific active shooter incident at the Route 91 country music concert in Las Vegas in October 2017, agencies in jurisdictions that host such events have been finding ways to use drones for crowd and area overwatch. In April the Indio (CA) Police Department hired a commercial drone company to help it bolster ground security at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which draws as many as 125,000 people per day. Sgt. Dan Marshall of the Indio PD told the Los Angeles Times that the drones were being used to monitor the perimeters. "It takes us a few minutes to get an officer to a perimeter breach, but a drone takes 45 seconds," he said.

Now that the FAA has relaxed its regulations for commercial drone operation by public safety agencies, more and more police departments want to add this tool to their capabilities. But many face one more major hurdle — public perception. Whenever a big city police department asks a city council for a drone program, the privacy activists and the American Civil Liberties Union fight it tooth and nail.

There is this misguided belief that law enforcement drones have the capabilities of extremely sophisticated UAVs. The differences are clear to anyone who compares the two different types of aircraft. Military UAVs are usually capable of delivering missiles on target. Law enforcement drones are not armed. Military UAVs can loiter hours and hours over a target; the Grumman Global Hawk can stay in the air more than a day. In contrast, police drones usually have a flight time of 30 minutes to an hour. The only law enforcement agencies using the types of drones that can loiter over an area a long time are federal agencies like the Border Patrol, which need to watch over vast areas of territory. Despite the fears of privacy activists who believe law enforcement drones could watch them all day long and through the windows of their homes, the truth is that law enforcement drones are not designed for that kind of surveillance, agencies don't have the officers necessary to do it, and it would be illegal to do so without a warrant.

The best argument an agency can present to the local bureaucracy for why a drone program should be implemented is that the aerial imaging provided by drones can save lives. And in many instances, drones can provide law enforcement with that imaging capability much more cheaply than helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft. Helicopters cost millions of dollars to purchase and then you have to hire or train pilots. In contrast, law enforcement-quality drones cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $25,000 and pilots can be trained in-house for a few thousand dollars more. One agency estimated its drone operation costs at $25. In contrast just the fuel costs for one hour of helicopter operation is around $600.

Does that mean drones can do everything helicopters and their flight crews do for pennies on the dollar? No. Drones are not suited to patrol, or pursuit, or any other mission that requires a human pilot and human observation. They are not a replacement for manned aircraft, at least not yet. But what they can do is give you the ability to gather aerial imaging quickly and efficiently for missions like searches and overwatch of events or law enforcement operations.

About the Author: David Griffith is the editor of POLICE Magazine. This article was originally published in POLICE.