Unmanned aircraft systems offer many benefits to law enforcement agencies but only if properly trained personnel are using the right tools for the job and best practices are followed.  -  Composite image by Kevin Haegele

Unmanned aircraft systems offer many benefits to law enforcement agencies but only if properly trained personnel are using the right tools for the job and best practices are followed.

Composite image by Kevin Haegele

Over the past few years small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) commonly known as "drones" have become a must-have technology for many American law enforcement agencies. Seemingly overnight, hundreds of police departments and sheriff's offices have started to utilize sUAS in a variety of applications, including search and rescue, crime scene investigations, accident reconstruction, and legally authorized surveillance. This has led companies distributing drones to start marketing to law enforcement. It has also led to commercial/non-profit organizations that were created to focus on hobbyist drone flying to re-direct their efforts toward the law enforcement community, often without understanding the law enforcement profession or your security concerns.

In the haste to implement this "cool kid tech," a number of things have often been overlooked. Who actually makes this technology? Who is pushing this technology? Are the people teaching it actually accredited in what they do? All of these are vital questions you need to address if you are planning to acquire and operate sUAS at your agency.

Defining "Expert"

One of the biggest points of confusion over drones within law enforcement has been the many folks calling themselves "experts." A truly overlooked concept is: How are these people experts? Who gave them such a title? Where is the research, operational experience, and technological background to justify such a title? Sadly, there has been a great deal of self-endorsement rather than any qualifying or quantifying in this regard. In some cases, individuals with a hobbyist-level comprehension of UAS operations are being considered on the same level as those with a NASA background. The use of unmanned aerial systems by law enforcement involves many issues not even considered by hobby-level operators who are not aware of such issues because of their minimal training.

So you need to separate the experts from the "experts." That means law enforcement must realize that the "our guy knows everything we need" mentality is not a winning solution. Unmanned devices are very much case-by-case technology and each requires a different skill set. If no manufacturer has directly trained your expert, then they instantly have no credibility to speak from a technically proficient level. Law enforcement would never recognize someone as an armorer just because they happen to be a gun enthusiast. A real armorer has to go through specialized training to achieve that title. Similarly, each sUAS manufacturer has a different systemic variable that is only disclosed during their authorized OEM training. Without it, the person cannot fully discuss the system nor ensure safe ongoing operations.

Technology vs. Toys

A key consideration to embed into law enforcement culture is that unmanned aerial systems should not be bought like toys. Oftentimes, agencies are misled into the unvetted options of buying something from a hobby store or they buy a commercial off-the-shelf item. Commercial off-the-shelf drones are simply not a viable solution for the law enforcement community. Many are from China and have been found to have embedded cybersecurity vulnerabilities. This has led to numerous Department of Defense findings against their use because of the risk to national security. Even federal law enforcement has found that operating Chinese-made hobby drones is problematic. The Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has issued a ban on DHS personnel using such systems.

So how can an agency know the difference between commercial off-the-shelf drones and viable law enforcement tools? You need to understand the difference between specialized law enforcement suitable technology and commercial devices.

Commercial off-the-shelf drones are not encrypted systems. It doesn't matter if the box says "Pro" or "LE;" all commercial off-the-shelf UAS operate on open band frequencies of 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz. Some specialized UAS have encrypted 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz systems, but verification from the manufacturer is prudent. For background, the FCC states that "Public safety channels are available in the VHF band, 220 MHz band, UHF, T-Band (licensing freeze in effect), 700 MHz narrowband, 700 MHz broadband, 800 MHz band, 4.9 GHz, and 5.9 GHz bands" (www.FCC.gov/public-safety-and-homeland-security). The 1.8 MHz band is used by some UAS, but this is for military-level systems—some of which are available to law enforcement. The UAS on the 1.8 MHz band tend to be the most secure generally using AES-256 encryption. The lack of encryption in commercial off-the-shelf drones is the reason for the minimal cost. And yes, many in law enforcement might say they don't care about encryption, but they will quickly care when someone takes over their aircraft in flight to crash it, the aircraft loses command and control function in flight, or the device discloses cybersecurity information without permission.

Another consideration is that commercial off-the-shelf drones were never made for law enforcement use. These UAS were made for civilians who want to conduct hobby-level activities. This means when it's below zero, raining, snowing, or windy, these devices are prone to failure. Failure while in flight can lead to a catastrophic incident including loss of life as demonstrated by an FAA study involving small rotary UAS and crash test dummies ("UAS Ground Collision Severity Evaluation" Revision 2. Final Report for the FAA UAS Center of Excellence Task A4). If a device is not built for temperatures below zero degrees or over 100 degrees, the system was not likely designed to handle law enforcement functions. The weather limitations of an sUAS should always be vetted per the manufacturer of the device.

Training is Needed

Something that has also been lost in the rush to get sUAS flying in law enforcement operations is the need for quality training. This critical variable has for too long been overlooked. Even the FAA will admit that their mission is to facilitate law enforcement agencies to operate sUAS, not provide or vet the training.

If a person isn't approved by the manufacturer of a sUAS to be an instructor you should more closely investigate their credentials. Another thing to consider in law enforcement training is whether the instructor understands your operational needs. As the list of sUAS training providers seems to grow daily, no one has bothered to ask about law enforcement basics. Why is there little to no training that addresses the indications and/or contraindications of use? Why are there no efforts to train law enforcement on night operations?

When evaluating the value of unmanned training, some law enforcement agencies have been fooled into believing that the cost of the training is related to its value. This is simply not the case. Some commercial companies have charged as much as $2,500 per officer for sUAS training, and yet these programs lack national or state accreditation. Having the proper person train your UAS operators can be the difference between a successful mission and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit.

It's important for you to know if the UAS trainer and the trainer's program have been verified by a law enforcement accreditation program. Someone would never be able to train a basic patrolman course without first being certified as an instructor. There have been a great deal of sUAS programs focused on teaching law enforcement, but often there is no accreditation through professional law enforcement organizations such as IADLEST, POST, and CALEA. This is vital to ensure that the person understands how to deliver information based on legal practices and to ensure their methods are viable to address law enforcement missions.

The FAA and LE

Sometimes police get the feeling that the FAA is a "boogeyman" that hinders law enforcement from operating sUAS. This is not the case at all. In fact, there have been measures taken by the FAA to aid law enforcement in operating UAS. One of the lesser known FAA programs is the Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP). LEAP agents are specialized investigators tasked with supporting law enforcement aviation-related issues. These agents are a wealth of knowledge and each has detailed information on their region.

The FAA has made a clear stance on Public Aircraft Operations (PAO), which is defined by the government as "an aircraft owned and operated by the government of a State, the District of Columbia, or a territory or possession of the United States or a political subdivision of one of these governments" (uscode.house.gov, 2019).

It is important for you to know the FAA's PAO policies. Because the wrong type of PAO use by a law enforcement agency can create legal and liability issues. Per FAA Advisory Circular #00-1.1B (issued 21 September 2018), "PAO are limited by the statute to certain government operations within U.S. airspace. Accordingly, most aspects of PAO are not subject to FAA oversight" (Advisory Circular #00-1.1B, Section 7.1). Additionally, "PAO may self-certify standards for unmanned aircraft (UA) airworthiness as well as pilot certification, qualification, and medical standards. However, if a public entity elects to operate under civil regulations, such as the conduct of operations under the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (FMRA), section 333, or 14 CFR part 107, then those operations would be subject to oversight by ASIs." (Advisory Circular #00-1.1B, Section 12) What does this mean? It means that when operating under Part 107 regulations, a law enforcement agency is subject to FAA oversight, which lowers the functionality of operations as a whole.

Finding Solutions

Overall, there are viable solutions to aid law enforcement agencies in the effective integration of sUAS into their operations.

For example, one of the most simplistic options for finding qualified training is to directly contact a manufacturer and request who they recommend for law enforcement training. This can mitigate the risk of improper operations as well as lower overall risk to the agency in the long term. While this seems easy, sadly most agencies have moved into sUAS operations never once communicating with the entity that actually built their system.

There also needs to be an effort to have specialized training when using a drone. If the agency is using a UAS for tactical support, then the person integrating the system should have a SWAT background. The same is true for search and rescue, accident reconstruction, or any other use. This will ensure that best practices are used.

There are resources within the main national associations that can help you properly implement UAS programs at your agency. For example, the DOJ COPS Office CRI-TAC office can assist with training and consultation on sUAS.

Finally, I would argue that commercial off-the-shelf drones are not suitable for police work. In June the DoD Inspector General's report found that "If the DoD continues to purchase and use COTS (commercial off the shelf) information technology items without identifying, assessing, and mitigating known vulnerabilities associated with COTS information technology items, missions critical to national security could be compromised" (Report No. DODIG-2019-106). Therefore, unless your agency legitimately can say it has better cyber defenses than the U.S. military, commercial off-the-shelf systems are not a viable option for your sUAS needs.

Law enforcement use of UAS is growing. This is good because these tools offer great benefits for public safety. But law enforcement needs to refine its thinking about using UAS to ensure cybersecurity and effective, safe, and legal operation.

About the Author: Joshua Brown is the architect of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) "UAS for Public Safety" course, a subject matter expert for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and CEO of Icarus Aerospace. He is also a global security doctoral student.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of POLICE magazine, a sister publication of Government Fleet.