Airborne LE: Think Outside the Box

The call comes in to dispatch: an emotionally disturbed male has been seen running around their yard with a handgun. The male has a known psychiatric history and fired a few shots into the air while muttering incoherently. Dispatch assigns several units and a supervisor. The first arriving unit tactically parks and observes absolutely no activity in the yard. A second arriving unit confirms no one is in the rear yard. A neighbor advises that the male ran back into the house a few minutes ago and has not been seen since.

Responding units establish a safe, tactical perimeter. Within three minutes of arrival, a patrol officer opens the trunk to his vehicle and removes a small suitcase. The officer opens the case and removes a small unmanned aerial vehicle that is capable of transmitting video back to a small portable receiver. The officer deploys the aerial vehicle and begins looking in windows of the house. Methodically checking each window, the officer clears ever room until looking into a second floor bedroom. He sees the male lying on the floor in a pool of blood after tragically taking his own life. The tactical team soon makes entry and clears the house without incident.

As public budgets around the country face increased scrutiny, many agencies are wrestling with the problem of how to provide airborne law enforcement capability. In recent months, several agencies have shut down their traditional airborne law enforcement programs or drastically cut their flying hours.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Is the above scenario a pure tale of science fiction? Hardly. This technology is here now and is rapidly being introduced to many markets including law enforcement. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is actively engaged in working with several industry associations and law enforcement groups in order to issue guidelines and rules for using these unmanned aerial vehicles. Current issues include mixing unmanned aerial systems with traditional aircraft as well as providing for safety of persons on the ground. Potential products range for a small vehicle, able to be carried in the trunk of a vehicle to larger systems operated by an operator several miles away.

The missions and possibilities for law enforcement are varied and many; tactical work, surveillance, traffic, patrol and searches are just a few possibilities. It could greatly enhance the patrol officers situational awareness at scenes allowing them to work safer and more efficiently. At potential hazardous material scenes, an unmanned aerial vehicle, armed with air sensors can be flown close to the suspected substance, offering both a visual as well as technical evaluation of the scene. Is the air safe? Are there other potential hazards?

Manned Aerial Vehicles: Thinking out of the box

Responding to the high cost of police helicopters many agencies seek alternatives. While some agencies may elect to use an airplane, some have gone a step further. Two agencies in the United States are using a powered parachute to help meet some of their airborne law enforcement needs. The two seat power parachute is used for a wide variety of missions including aerial surveillance, drug enforcement (particularly locating marijuana fields), crime scene photos, command and control at large events and missing person searches.

"The total direct operating cost is $30.00 per hour," notes Silver Lining Aviation's CEO Craig Ewing, a manufacturer of a law enforcement powered parachute. Ewing continues, "If you consider the initial cost of around $20,000 for a two seat, as well as the very low operating cost, a powered parachute makes sense particularly for a rural agency." Mr. Ewing notes that the operating cost includes the salaries of the persons aboard. The powered parachute can be being rapidly deployed to a scene using a small trailer towed by a truck. "For many small agencies, the powered parachute is really their only option for any type of airborne law enforcement." commented Ewing.

Other agencies are utilizing light sport aircraft (LSA) to provide their airborne law enforcement services. Once again, cost is a driving factor. "If I could provide many of the same effective services cheaper, why wouldn't I consider such an option?" remarks one police chief.


Although airships have gone the way of the steam engine in terms of carrying passengers or freight, some feel they have a place as a surveillance platform in law enforcement. In fact, the NYPD has leased a commercial airship and assigned personnel as well as a camera to downlink conditions to several major events. An NYPD Chief explains, "The airship has a six hour loiter time and is able to provide high quality video without needing fuel." The airship comes equipped with a bathroom to facilitate any personal need during the mission.

The Future

As the strain on municipal budgets grows, governments are always looking to do more with less. The ability to provide safe and effective airborne law enforcement platforms continues to remain a challenge. Agencies are constantly looking for alternatives to still provide this capability while containing costs. Unmanned aerial systems and alternative manned aircraft may offer some answers.

Obviously, the future will include a mix of both manned and unmanned aerial systems. The driving force behind any of these powerful tools and programs should be safety and the ability to save lives.