Clinging to her phone, a mother speaks in desperation with her local 911 call center. Her back was turned for a moment, but it was just long enough for her kids to disappear out of sight deep into the park. Officers arrive and prepare their DJI Mavic Pro unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for deployment. Within moments, the drone is airborne.
It covers acres of land in a matter of minutes, as two officers act as drone and camera operators. Their task is to spot any sign of the two children. A red jacket is spotted briefly in the dense brush. Changing the camera to an infrared sensor, the officer spots the heat signature of two children crouched in the bushes. With the drone's exact location highlighted on a moving map, rescuers make their way to the two lost children and reunite the family less than 20 minutes after beginning their response.
As technology progresses, so too must the tactics used by law enforcement. Many times, this involves purchasing new equipment, conducting additional training, and revising departmental policy. Without exception, the addition of a drone program requires an adjustment within the organization as a whole. In the simplest of terms, the drone must be purchased through the appropriate requisition process, officers must be trained on an extensive list of constitutional, federal, state, and local laws and regulations, and an acceptable drone usage policy must be drafted to remain transparent with the community to mitigate privacy protection concerns.
Prior to deciding on whether to purchase an unmanned drone vs. a manned fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter, it is important to realize that these machines serve entirely different purposes.
Drones are ideally utilized as tools for searches (especially where danger exists for humans), collecting reconnaissance data, photographing crime scenes, and limited-scope short-term surveillance.
Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are better suited for in-progress crime monitoring (such as pursuits and robberies), long-term surveillance, and routine patrol operations. Additionally, a helicopter's flight crew is capable of rapidly responding to an incident from a distance and providing back-up or first aid, while a drone must be deployed near the scene. Think of adding a drone to the department as a supplemental force multiplier, rather than a replacement for an air asset.
Once you've determined that your agency's missions can benefit from a drone program, you have to get permission from the feds to operate a UAS.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has two authorization processes available to law enforcement agencies operating drones as public aircraft (as defined by 49 USC §40102(a)(41)).
While two processes are available, they cannot be intermingled. The agency applying for authorization must choose one or the other, and must operate under the restrictions applied to all publicly owned aircraft.
The first authorization available to public aircraft requires more initial work on behalf of the applying law enforcement agency, but grants better access to airspace and reduces the amount of subsequent coordination. The Certificate of Authorization (COA) process outlines an agency's plan of operation in great detail.
The COA requires the applying agency to thoroughly document and self-certify their drones, pilots, and intended locations of operation. Because the law enforcement applicant certifies their own drone, the size and weight of the drone is subject to the agency's discretion, not statutory limitations. Depending on the type of airspace in which the agency intends to operate, a blanket approval or site-specific agreement is issued.
The FAA enacted new regulations under 14 CFR §107 (better known as "Part 107") to enable civilly owned drone aircraft to operate within controlled airspace with their own set of restrictions. Initially, the Part 107 exemption requires less work when compared to the COA process. 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.
The main benefit to operating a drone in law enforcement operations is the per-hour cost basis vs. manned aerial assets. While drones are not intended to replace manned aerial assets, they can supplement certain operations for less cost while simultaneously relieving manned aerial assets from those tasks so they can perform other missions.
A simple cost comparison between drones and helicopters shows a significant amount of savings for the department if it uses drones instead of helicopters for some missions. The Tulsa Police Department purchased a new Eurocopter AS350B2 in 2013 with an estimated price tag of $2.5 million, including the after-market law enforcement upgrades. Assuming pilot training was conducted through an independent flight school, the cost of training one pilot to become pilot-in-command of the helicopter is at minimum $43,000.
That's just the introductory costs of fielding a manned aerial asset; the annual cost of a helicopter continues to have a significant impact on the department's budget. The Long Beach (CA) Police Department, which also operates the Eurocopter AS350B2, estimates an hourly cost of $600 per hour, exclusive of pilot salary. While excluding pilot pay, training, fuel, and extraneous expenses related to irregular maintenance, the Long Beach Police Department estimates they operate their helicopter around 650 hours per year, spending nearly $414,000 annually.
The Mesa County (CO) Sheriff's Office was one of the early pioneers in drone usage in law enforcement and operates Dragan's Draganflyer X6 drone. Initially purchased directly from the manufacturer, the Draganflyer X6 bore a retail price of $25,000. Hourly, the Mesa County Sheriff's Office estimates the cost of operating its drone to be around $25, exclusive of pilot pay. The bulk of this cost, the Mesa County SO says, goes toward purchasing long-term items such as replacement propellers and batteries. Annually, these operations would cost around $10,000 if they flew for nearly 400 hours.
With regards to pilot training, operating a drone is less restrictive, requiring less mandatory flight instruction. Accordingly, pilot training is typically factored into the purchase price of a drone by the manufacturer. This training can range from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the type of drone and the extent of the training required. Additionally, operating as the pilot-in-command of a helicopter while earning compensation requires an expensive commercial pilot's license. Operating as pilot-in-command of a drone while earning compensation only requires a Remote Pilot Certificate. While the commercial pilot's license for a helicopter can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the exam for the Remote Pilot's Certificate costs $150.
The capabilities of the onboard technology attached to many drones presently in use by law enforcement exemplifies their utility in many applications. Operating a pair of DJI Inspire 1 drones, the Salt River (AZ) Police Department is capable of a variety of tasks using the onboard DJI Zenmuse X5 camera. The three-axis gimbal on the camera allows the drone's camera operator to move video in any direction in resolution as high as 4K clarity.
Camera aficionados will appreciate the flexibility of the Zenmuse X5's ISO range of 100-25600, allowing for clear video during bright and low-light operations. By attaching the Zenmuse XT Integrated Thermal Camera, the camera operator can search a large field for heat signatures with similar clarity and definition as the FLIR cameras attached to most patrol helicopters.
In addition to the drone's onboard systems, a suite of software increases the utility of the drone exponentially. Using photo data from the drone's high-definition camera, crime scene software such as Maxsur's PIX4D Multi-Dimensional Aerial Mapping Software is capable of rendering a complete three-dimensional picture of a crime scene. Cross-referencing the drone's location by GPS, Maxsur's software directs the drone into an automatic grid-search pattern. Maxsur boasts their software's ability to measure any angle down to 5mm once the high-definition photos have been rendered and compiled.
Operating a helicopter for the purposes of photographing a crime scene can be costly, considering the high per-hour cost of a helicopter. When time is of the essence, such as when emergency responders are trying to rapidly open a road following a traffic collision, the deployment of a drone can save a significant amount of time and money while photographing the scene.
Logistically speaking, the addition of a drone to your department is based entirely on justifying the need to evolve your department's technology over time. Drone programs have become increasingly fitting for large metropolitan agencies to small township police departments. As previously mentioned, drones are not intended to replace manned aviation assets. However, on a case-by-case basis, a department can save money over time by establishing a drone program that fits their need.
Michael Hamann is a full-time Federal Aviation Administration employee. He holds a bachelor of science degree in aerospace studies from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a master of arts degree in emergency management and homeland security from Arizona State University.