There’s probably an unmanned aircraft vehicle out there capable of just about any aerial use a law enforcement agency might have and unmanned aircraft allows departments who cannot afford a helicopter to see things from the air. The use of unmanned aircraft is increasing as they become more versatile and even smaller departments learn they can use UAVs to cover more ground at lesser expense. Every agency must keep up with technological advances while at the same time having to face new threats, including domestic terrorism in every corner of the country and the UAV is a new tool to help with these threats.
UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial or Aircraft Vehicles) are those with no pilot on board, either remotely controlled or pre-programmed for autonomous flights. Various terminology is used, UAV, UAS, sUAS (small UAS) or even MAV (micro air vehicle). The UAS or UAV designation is generally preferred by law enforcement because of the negative connotations of using the term “drone.” The widely used UAV term continues to be used although the FAA adopted the formal use of UAS because most users of the vehicles also use ground systems and other equipment besides the flying vehicle.
There are exceptions who prefer the FAA designation. Sgt. Matt Rogers, Michigan State Police-Aviation Unit stated that, “Just for uniformity I use UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System). This is what the FAA labels these devices and there are so many different names out there, I have just always stuck with what the FAA uses since they are the regulators.” He added that sUAS (small UAS) refers to a vehicle under 55 pounds
Many UAVs have great versatility and can be used for various applications. The use of UAVs for surveillance and other purposes broadened widely after the U. S. military benefitted from their use in combat zones and more manufacturers began developing and making drones specifically for law enforcement use. UAVs are smaller and quieter and able to surreptitiously view scenes not possible in any other manner without endangering officers on the scene.
It is sometimes possible to allay the concerns of the public of what they see as drones invading their privacy when departments make an effort to educate the public and develop policies and procedures before acquiring them.
Ben Miller, Quartermaster, Unmanned Aircraft Program Director for the Mesa County Sheriff's Office (CO) reports that they did everything they could to avoid the poor public perception of UAVs seen elsewhere. “We spent quite a bit of time educating the public as to the realities of what we, then, intended to do with UAVs and keep them updated as to what we, now, do. We maintained a strong sense of trust with our community by creating strong use policy as well as a transparent communication with the community as to our intentions.” He said that he also believes that he believes that his jurisdiction does not operate in the same social and political environments as some large cities that have had citizen outcry about using the UAVs.
Choosing Fixed Wing or VTOL
Fixed wing vehicles can fly for longer distances and duration but need more space for takeoff and landing. They must keep moving to stay in the air and cannot hover over a location or object. VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) systems require limited space for take-off and landing and provide more control during take-off and landings as well as being able to hover in place.
Mesa County (CO) UAS Program Director Ben Miller utilizes both the Falcon and Draganflyer UAVs. He reports that the versatility of using two different types of UAVs is a distinct advantage. When they are doing low altitude flying, such as 50-80’ at a crime scene, maybe in as small an area as a driveway at a homicide scene, a fixed wing UAV just wouldn’t do the work. On the other hand, they need a fixed wing to fly larger scenes such as grid areas to look for a missing person. The VTOL is easy to use, you just set it on the ground and it takes off, but its flight is of shorter duration and while the fixed wing needs space to deploy, it flies longer and covers more ground. “With any heli, everything takes power, while with the fixed wing, you aren’t fighting gravity, just using energy for the forward motion. While the VTOL is easier to use and quicker to deploy, it has less time in the air.”
Miller suggests that when choosing UAVs and deciding on fixed wing or VTOL to remember that it requires more lift to fly large aircraft but they can stay aloft longer. The Quad might fly for thirty minutes while a fixed wing could fly a grid pattern for up to two hours, such as a search and rescue mission.
FAA Approval Needed
The FAA notes that Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) come in many sizes and serve very diverse purposes, but share the same responsibility with manned aircraft to operate safely and operators must gain a better understanding of operational issues, specifications, technological considerations and training needs. Making sure the appropriate permissions are in place from the FAA appears to be one of the major drawback for agencies wanting to use UAVs.
Of the two ways to get FAA approval to operate a UAS, one is for civil aircraft, and the option that involves law enforcement is to obtain a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for public aircraft, often requested for law enforcement and other government operational missions. Sgt. Rogers reports that Michigan State Police has a statewide Certificate of Authorization (COA) that allows them to fly their Aeryon UAS.
The COA is usually for a defined time period, such as two years, allowing the operator to use a defined block of airspace with special provisions unique to the proposed operation, such as a COA requiring flying only under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and/or only during daylight hours. Routine operation of UAS over densely-populated areas is prohibited.
Miami Dade Police Department Lt. Aviel Sanchez stated that their department was one of the first to fly law enforcement UAVs. Sanchez reports that since they were the first law enforcement agency to get FAA approval for flying a drone, it was a lengthy difficult process since no one had ever undergone the process previously. Their COA is twenty-two pages long but the process is much less cumbersome now. While their program is nationally recognized, they have had few opportunities to actually fly UAV missions.
Sanchez stated, “While the drone can be a valuable law enforcement tool, it is operable only in certain specific situations. With a large aviation unit such as ours, it is sometimes easier to use traditional aviation options such as a helicopter equipped with camera and/or infrared.” Sanchez explained that this is because their COA with the FAA to deploy their drone requires them to have three people on the ground or four if they want a supervisor present. It is easier for them to simply deploy a manned aircraft in many situations.
They would only use the drone in certain limited situations such as where they don’t want to put a pilot in harm’s way or where they are repeatedly checking a large wooded area where flying a drone would be the most cost effective option. Their restricted use of the drone is due to the FAA’s numerous COA requirements including line of sight operation, flying under 400’, no night flying, no flying over populated areas, no flying over Class B airports, and no flying over high rise buildings. Due to the population and building characteristics of their jurisdiction, this places many limitations on them. Additionally, Florida has passed legislation requiring that a search warrant be obtained other than for emergency or tactical use. This has really restricted law enforcement use for such things as crime scene surveying or non-emergency use.
Civilian drone use can sometimes be done with an FAA-approved exception making their use less controlled and law enforcement advocates are encouraging the FAA to allow at least the same type of regulations for law enforcement use.
Sgt. Andrew Cohen of MDPD is a frequent speaker at UAV conferences. He agrees that since MDPD was the first agency to get a COA to fly a drone, it was a more lengthy process and required several on-site visits. The process is easier now and there may be changes coming from the FAA as it is already easier for civilians who can get a 333 exemption, such as for photographers and other professionals, but law enforcement still has more restrictions.
Cohen reports that drone operators are not required to have a pilot’s license but it is required that the operator have appropriate knowledge, such as being able to pass the same test as a pilot or the parts required for flying a drone. MDPD uses licensed pilots to meet the requirements but there are other departments who have been able to inquire of the FAA what specific knowledge or training they need to have in order to meet the requirements without being pilots.
Demonstrating the involved process of deploying their UAV, Cohen stated that their COA requires them to notify the FAA an hour before they deploy, of the intent to deploy, and then half an hour before they deploy, although the FAA does sometimes help expedite these approvals. Cohen stated that SWAT requires much more immediate action and when a helicopter can be available in ten minutes, SWAT is usually going to request that in lieu of the UAV deployment. Small departments with only a UAV and no helicopter available, would, of course, welcome that option.
Sgt. Matthew Rogers reports that certain notifications are necessary when flying the UAS. “You have to file a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) anytime you fly. The FAA will not authorize flights within Class B airspace (large airports like Detroit Metro or Chicago O’Hare). The only exemption to that would be if you applied for an emergency COA. We are working on getting authorization to fly within Class C and D airspace (Lansing Airport and Grand Rapids Airport are examples). The FAA will allow that as long as the ATC (air traffic control) facilities have read how we will operate within their airspace and they agree with our operations. If we flew within that airspace (5-mile ring around the airport) we would have to coordinate with the ATC facility via the radio/cellphone. Outside of those areas a NOTAM is all that is required.”
Rogers stated that operator training is necessary and an operator should, “Review the FAA rules and regulations prior to operating the UAS. There are a lot of specific rules for government agencies, for example, currently the operator must have at minimum passed a private pilot written examination. Most would think that is unnecessary, however, the knowledge you obtain about airspace is something critical to safe operation of the UAS. Also, police agencies need to follow the rules. We cannot operate under the ‘hobbyist’ umbrella as a law enforcement agency. Law enforcement must lead by example.”
Sgt. Rogers, “The COA requires an operator and observer. The observer’s role is to keep eyes on the UAS. They cannot be in a moving vehicle or airborne and have to remain line of sight to the UAS, for our system that is about one-half mile before you really strain to keep sight. Per the FAA rules, the observer has to be able to see the UAS with unaided vision. They can use binoculars to supplement, but must be able to see with the naked eye. The observers also have to have passed a Class II FAA medical evaluation.”
Director Miller reports that the FAA wants to present that UAVs are a huge risk to public safety and it is not actually correct. Law enforcement agencies are not asking to flying near airports or other high risk areas. Private drones are much more off an issue where there is no training or oversight. While UAVs are very useful in rural environments, they are even more useful in urban environments, although the FAA is more reluctant, requires more mitigation and requires more work to get FAA approval. The FAA will need to deal with the issue of public safety UAVs. Large cities such as New York need to be able to utilize UAVs but they have to figure out how to operate within the rules and restrictions of the FAA.
Only major municipalities can afford a helicopter but the use of drones is changing this. Miller calls this the “democratization of aviation” and said it is a natural progression of enabling technology. He was able to design training to meet FAA’s requirements and stated, “One of the benefits of public aircraft aviation is that the FAA can’t require a pilot’s license for law enforcement operations. There are no legal requirements for law enforcement to be licensed as pilots.” For the Mesa (CO) Sheriff’s Department to receive their COA, they presented their training program to the FAA and it is more training than private pilots are required, as far as UAVs are concerned. They developed their own 40-hour course covering the legalities, when warrants are needed, public education, how to set up the system, and putting together an operation. They plan to start offering this 40-hour course as an academy to other law enforcement agencies.
Director Miller stated, “It is upsetting how the FAA is dealing with public safety in the United States to place such requirements on public safety and not on hobby drones. We should be focusing efforts on hobby drones and not requiring COAs for law enforcement that take six months to complete.” He notes that it is important to educate public safety users about what the requirements actually are for them to make better use of UAVs and suggest agencies study the regulations around "public use aircraft".
Miller suggests several steps that law enforcement agencies should take before utilizing UAVs. This includes researching who has been using UAVs and what they have done right or wrong, what the technology can do, and what are the useful applications. It is important to figure out what you are trying to solve or what you are using it for and understand the technology. It is also important to communicate with the public and educate them about what you intend to do with the UAVs. He further stated that it is important to understand the process of public aircraft operations according to the FAA and to learn what the rules actually are as opposed to what you are being told by the FAA. The tide is changing to expect more from the FAA for public safety agencies using UAVS.
UAVs Provide a Versatile Platform
UAVs are used for covert surveillance, but that is only one of the many services they provide for law enforcement. UAVs are made to order for laser scanning or taking still photos for accident reconstruction and crime scene photography. Search and rescue operations in rough terrain can cover much more ground at less risk to officers using UAVs. Other applications for which they are used include reconnaissance such as intelligence and gathering information, traffic observation, event and VIP security situations, crowd control, and hostage/terrorist situations as well as tactical and SWAT operations.
Surveillance use includes reconnaissance missions prior to an armed entry, gaining intelligence in hostage/terrorism situations and any number of other situations where an eye in the sky would be useful. UAVs can also be used for fire control and assessing fire-related damage and observation and management of HAZMAT/CBRNE situations.
The Michigan State Police have an Aviation Unit which includes manned flight as well as UAS. Sgt. Matt Rogers stated, “The UAS allows our unit to be more versatile. We haven’t taken any missions away from the helicopter to use the UAS, what we have done is expand our capabilities. The UAS is great at providing crime scene photos, traffic crash reconstruction, etc… missions that we rarely did with the helicopter to begin with. The helicopter is great at being a force multiplier on patrol flights, searching for fugitives, following foot pursuits/car pursuits, and search and rescue. These are all things the UAS cannot do well.”
Miller stated, “There is no doubt of the benefits of using UAVs for law enforcement. In tactical operations, the ability to see the whole picture is critical to decision makers on the ground. Crime scene reconstruction is also greatly aided by seeing the picture from the air. The majority of crimes scenes that are documented are traffic accidents, especially fatalities, to determine what happened and who was at fault.”
Miller is enthusiastic about the use of PHODAR which uses the same file format as LIDAR but it generates a more dense point cloud and like LiDAR, you can walk through it.
While previously they used to draw paper scale models using laser measurements, which was very time consuming, they can fly a traffic accident in fifteen minutes and create three-dimensional models using PHODAR. PHODAR uses the same points as LIDAR using triangulation geometry. They use this geo-spatial tool locating points and software reassembles the photos into a 3D model. For instance, they can animate the pathway in a homicide crime scene or look in the direction a victim reports seeing something to determine if the story is consistent with the evidence. They make a point cloud with photography lessening the time at the crime scene. They can do it quicker than laser scanning and have a deliverable and better point cloud.
Legal considerations take into account the needed approval by the Federal Aviation Administration to obtain licensing approval. There may also be a myriad of state and local restrictions that may apply in any particular area.
Chris Miser, Falcon Unmanned, addressed this issue of getting FAA approval for UAV use, “To the untrained/uninitiated it may seem daunting but once you know what the FAA is looking for, the steps are simple. They do take a little time and patience but if you aren’t intimidated by filling out some forms and documents then it is fairly straight forward. We provide our customers free consulting and the boilerplate documentation for their letterhead and will guide them through the process. If done correctly the initial training COA should be approved in 60-90 days.”
Other legal considerations center around privacy concerns and the reactions of the public when UAVs are used. Larger agencies have found it prudent to hold public hearings before utilizing the devices. More importantly, departments are developing complete procedural manuals and using their public relations skills to notify and engage the public prior to utilizing these devices.
Sgt. Rogers reports, “We have never used our system for surveillance, if we were to use it for that purpose we would seek a search warrant prior to utilizing, furthermore if there was ever a question on whether we should get a search warrant, we would defer to obtaining one. We do not want to create case law with our operations. When we started this program one of our first steps was to create the policy and meet with the ACLU to hear their concerns. After careful review of our policy, they did not have any issues with our operations as long as we adhered to our policy. To date we have had no privacy issues. We retain all photos and video for three years. In the event there was a privacy concern, we could pull up the photos/video to show what our intended target was at the time.”
Regarding the privacy argument, Miller points out that while the public thinks their privacy will be invaded by law enforcement drones, most deputies go from call to call to call generated by the public. Modern policing with its staffing levels does not leave much time for patrol and the few times that an officer is not responding to calls, he has to use for paperwork. The idea that officers will be using drones to spy on someone is not sensible because they don’t have the time to do that.
Considerations in Choosing UAVs
Cost is naturally a factor in choosing the correct UAV for your department, although any UAV is probably going to be less expensive than using a helicopter for the same tasks. UAVs can perform much of the same work with some limitations. Considerations must include not only the initial purchase price, but also operator training, maintenance, and upgrades when they are available. Choosing a system that can be upgraded or a modular system where parts can be replaced without returning the whole unit can also result in cost savings.
Miser with Falcon Unmanned pointed out that, “Any professional UAV will come as a system of at least two aircraft with one GCS which is what we recommend for any customer. In the world of tactical UAVs 2 is 1 and 1 is none. Any new program will absolutely cause damage to their aircraft as they train and learn how to effectively use the systems. If you only have one aircraft then your program is not operational. To get into a system you are talking between 30K-50K depending on what system and payloads which vary greatly in pricing. We are the only professional company that also lists our pricing. ” He further stated that “You can go out and buy hobby grade toys for 1-2K but they will never be capable of the missions that we are. If you are going to do this professionally and where you are liable for damages as you are in the public safety market you should not be penny wise and pound foolish.”
Other considerations in choosing UAVs include flight time, communications with the ground, portability, durability, fixed wing vs. vertical take-off and landing, and safety features, including being able to retrieve the UAV. The general climate conditions of the area where the UAV is to be flown, as well as situational weather conditions including intense heat and precipitation levels need to be considered. Choosing UAVs that will operate in a multiple weather conditions, from warm sunny days, precipitation such as rain and snow, to extremely high or low temperatures or high wind will provide more versatility and opportunities for use.
Communications with the Ground
How information flows from the UAV to the operator or other observer is important, depending on how soon the information is needed. Whether information is gained once a UAV returns to the ground and its information is downloaded or if the information is transmitted to the ground in real time can make a great deal of difference depending on the situation in which a UAV us used. If the UAV is following a fleeing felon or even trying to locate a lost citizen, the immediacy of the information may be vital. If timely data is necessary, a UAV that directly transmits information in real time would be the best bet, with network and streaming abilities when more than one agency is involved in the activity.
Miser stated “For Falcon and Falcon Hover, we use a secure digital datalink which is more advanced than a lot of other analog UAV systems out there. We essentially have a closed network between our GCS and aircraft. That information can be integrated with existing communications architecture to disseminate the video stream anyone on the agencies network.”
UAV Size, Flight Time and Payload Capability
UAVs come in varying sizes and with varying payload capabilities. Most agencies probably want a UAV that can be carried in the trunk or other cargo department, with minimal setup on the scene. Some can even be transported in a backpack.
Cameras used on UAVs can be commercially acquired cameras mounted to the aerial platform or a camera-integrated system which allows for tagging the images with metadata and provides for more flexibility in the types of information gathered. UAV systems usually offer multiple payload systems, both cameras and sensors and being able to switch these payloads should be simple and quickly accomplished. The metadata is important because it allows multiple images to be assembled together into larger images of the area while maintaining accuracy and quality images. This can be used to assemble maps and returning to the same site for more flights.
UAV flight time is often calculated for the vehicle without a payload and under ideal conditions. With a payload, the operational flight time may be reduced as much as 50%, so it is important to know the flight time with a full payload.
Operating a UAV makes it necessary to understand situations where safety might become an issue, for the public and the officers, and where property damage might occur. Systems that have alerts when the power source is running low and the capability for the device to automatically fly back to home base or land have advantages. Other features available with some UAVs include pre-programmed responses for when communication is lost between the UAV and the operator, the ability of the operator to set a maximum flying distance to insure threats to privacy and property are minimized, as well as feedback to the vehicle that notifies it when the wind speed is too high for safe operation and that it should return home or land.
Miller stated that the general industry perspective is to use GPS for a “Return to Launch” feature for UAVs and he believes it would be irresponsible for a manufacturer not to include that. He believes there will probably be regulations in the future requiring such a feature. He reports that it can have settings that, for instance, allow it to return to its mission if it loses signal less than ten seconds and if not, then it returns and it might even return and hover over head until the signal is regained and then land or if the operator has regained control, he can land the aircraft. He suggests taking advantage of current technology but making sure that the aircraft is under control of the operator.
Durability and Weather Considerations
The use of UAVs may be particularly advantageous in rural areas with large land areas to cover and in areas where weather extremes can make travel difficult, especially in situations where search and rescue might be needed or where fugitives have taken refuge in hard to reach areas. The durability of UAVs for such areas is important and the ability to operate in varying weather conditions is important. Some UAV manufacturers include this design element.
For instance, Chris Miser at Falcon stated, “Our system was designed for environmental extremes which is why we have multiple customers in Africa. We also do very well in the cold, rain, snow, and high winds. Our system is designed and tested in the full seasons of Denver, CO so we get the hot hot and the cold cold (weather) and we fly in all of them.”
Planning for UAVs Makes Sense
Before a department purchases a UAV, they need to consider their political climate and geographical location to determine if their needs might be served by a UAV and if their jurisdiction will accept its use. They need to consider cost which must include training, maintenance and updates. They should research and determine what type of UAV will best serve their needs and talk with other departments w who are actively using UAVs for the same type of activities for which they anticipate use. Learning from other law enforcement agencies who have already gone through the COA process with FAA can be invaluable in determining the appropriate training resources and what they need to do to comply with FAA regulations.
Kathy Marks has been a child abuse investigator for more than 30 years. She teaches classes regarding domestic terrorism and is a previous contributor to LAW and ORDER. She can be reached at email@example.com.