No runway needed

The concept of using an unmanned aircraft system in law enforcement is not new — the National Institute of Justice even includes the technology within its Aviation Technology Program.

A common public misconception of these systems stems from footage of and from the military’s well-known use of the Predator aircraft, images enough to ignite debates of big brother. Ultimately while the Predator is unmanned, it is not very practical for use in law enforcement within the domestic airspace. Perhaps “hand-launched” should precede the acronym ... will that help launch the picture we’re talking about here?

These small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) received their well-known debut in Operation Desert Storm and more recently in Afghanistan to help fight the war on terror. This history shows the benefit in cost of operations, enhanced safety in literally removing a pilot out of the cockpit and enhancing persistence.

Another well-known example is the surveillance footage of the Japanese Fukushima plant — a good illustration of how a UAS can benefit first responders in dangerous environments.

The question of how law enforcement can utilize this technology in the national airspace is where things get slightly more tricky.

High-flying ideas

There are two common categories for law enforcement’s mechanical aerial vehicles: rotary wing (helicopter) and fixed wing (airplane). Unmanned vehicles are no different. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are controlled by a pilot or, simply put, controller.

The controller and UAV commonly communicate via radio frequency through a remote control. Other technologies typically used are cameras, video transmitter/receiver, autopilot systems, altimeter, accelerometers, magnetometers, GPS technologies, gyroscopes, radio frequency or IP communication technologies and the vehicle’s battery. With these systems integrated, the computer mostly keeps the vehicle in the air while the controlling device simply directs it. Some systems include a screen for the controlling “pilot” to view the surveillance feed from the aircraft.

With these array of sensors acting as the flight control system, “[technically] you don’t need a pilot, the system can take off and can fly in a couple of different methods … no pilot is necessary to be in that loop,” says Dennis D’Annunzio, Rotomotion’s chief operating officer.

But this is academic. Cameras have already logged hundreds if not thousands of flight-hours in the air — the advancements in and manipulation of these technologies are the new development. Steve Gitlin, vice president of marketing strategy and communications of AeroVironment Inc., compares the systems to the evolution of information technology. From the large mainframe computer to home personal computer and eventually the smartphone in our pocket.

The size has drastically changed, but on a basic level it’s still information processing.

“As far as the technology, we’re not reinventing anything here,” says Benjamin Miller, UAS operations manager from Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office. Flying helicopters and cameras for observation purposes for search and rescue, surveillance or traffic control has gone on for decades. “What we’re doing here is making it significantly more affordable,” he says. Through his experience, Miller suggests a UAS cost no more than a patrol car.

In his experience, Kevin Lauscher of Draganfly Innovations Inc. police and military sales, has seen law enforcement use the Draganfly aircraft line mostly for assistance to forensics, investigations and traffic accident and reconstruction. Traditionally police had used cherry pickers or fire trucks to get the necessary vantage point of an accident, he says.

He sees use of the vehicles in search and rescue as well as tactical situations. “[UAVs] are great for doing a reconnaissance of a subject area,” Lauscher says. “They can give you a good overall view of your scene, the physical outline of the building, where windows, doors, escape routes and entry areas are.”

Gitlin agrees, “We see significant potential for this technology to help law enforcement in very important ways that ultimately means saving dollars and saving lives.” He mentions the Texas Department of Public Safety had used an AeroVironment’s Wasp system in a hostage situation to get situational awareness.

Speaking of rotary-wing type of systems, “You may even have hand-launched systems where, as for us, we just set it out and stand off and it just goes straight up vertically. You can even use it where you can just go straight up and use it like a portable tower,” says D’Annunzio.

Miller calls it DQD, decision quality data: “If the people watching the video and looking at the pictures ... can’t make a decision based on the data you’re giving them, you’re wasting your time,” he says.

However officers do have to realize what they are looking at. Tim Adelman, aviation project manager for the Sheriff’s Association of Texas and aviation attorney, explains that the unmanned aircraft can only show what it can show: “For example, if the UAS is being used to provide surveillance of a person of interest, the video quality would only permit us to identify the person in generic terms, not by specific features. Therefore, officers need to have reasonable expectations of the amount of information that may be conveyed by the UAS operator.”

“The technology is mature, what it can provide is real — it’s not something that says ‘I think we can do this’,” says Miller.


As mature as today’s technology may be, the media always finds a way to address the issue of civilian privacy — almost as if it expects departments to float surveillance above private homes to watch inhabitants sleep and eat. Older than the UAV technology, this argument is as aged as the grandfathers of its writers.

D’Annunzio refutes these claims by keeping in mind that all aircraft are the just that, aircraft. “[Police] already have aircraft flying ... in the end, just a different way,” he says.

The concept of a static city-wide surveillance is already in progress. This surveillance keeps an eye on public areas; the warrant system was developed to handle the situations when that eye gazes into private space. Lauscher explains that the same rules would apply for law enforcement gaining access in other situations.

“There’s nothing new with unmanned aircraft systems in terms of getting evidence and using it,” says Adelman. There are already well-established laws addressing the obtaining and use of evidence through aircraft and sensors on aircraft. “You wouldn’t use [unmanned systems] for the routine highway patrol or patrol of neighborhoods. I think the public perception really needs to be conveyed better by agencies using [unmanned systems]. This is not like the movies with Big Brother spying on your daily activities,” he adds.

Keep it in sight

Because an unmanned aircraft flies without a physical pilot within the cockpit, and instead uses the array of sensors populating the UAS flight control system, the FAA claims a controller cannot maintain the “See and Avoid” requirement of Part 91, Rule 113. Basically, explains Miller, See and Avoid says that any time pilots are flying, they must be sure they are not on a collision course with other aircraft, and ensure others are not with them.

“Unmanned aircraft systems don’t have a civil airworthiness certificate, they are not like a Cessna airplane, but they still have to abide by the aircraft rules of the road established by the FAA,” says Adelman. However, a law enforcement agency is a public entity — public aircraft do not require such a certificate.

Further he says: “A law enforcement agency operating aircraft for its government mission, i.e., search and rescue, is exempt from the civil airmen and airworthiness requirement. [However] the FAA has taken the position that to legally fly UAS, you have to get a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA that can only be given to a public entity.”

In the past, he adds, public entities have incorrectly assumed they could use UAVs under an FAA advisory circular regarding the authority of a hobbyist — i.e., a father and son in a park. “A law enforcement agency is not a hobbyist; they are not a recreational user,” says Adelman.

What it takes

Adelman suggests agencies hire someone familiar with the regulations, someone who can look at the airspace and the mission and help establish an operation plan. This will eventually lead to the creation of a risk management process for operating.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems — Public Safety Solutions Team (UAS-PSST) Chief Executive Officer Leonard Ligon agrees. “Allow an objective team to come in and look at your system, what it’s going to do, what the owner says its going to do, and what you need for your mission,” he says. UAS-PSST provides public safety with regulation-compliant solutions in regard to UAVs. Ligon has worked with a number of universities around the country with COAs: University of Alaska, the University of Kansas, the University of North Dakota and New Mexico State University.

The manufacturer has also traditionally assisted agencies in these matters. However one concern is that, due to the restrictions and regulations for law enforcement UAVs, relevant experience can be tough to find. “A lot of them are DOD-focused and so they don’t have the domestic airspace expertise that’s necessary,” says Adelman.

As an end-user Miller knows the trials it can take to arrive to a successful destination. “My advice to agencies would be to contact the unmanned aircraft programs office inside the FAA … and walk right through the front door,” he says. “When it comes to operating UAS in the National Airspace System, public safety as a whole must maintain our credibility with the FAA.”