Does Your Agency Need a Drone?

Does Your Agency Need a Drone?

This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of KLE magazine.

During the first 30 days the Federal Aviation Administration was open for drone owners to register their unmanned aircraft systems, the FAA reported more than 300,000 people had registered on the site.


In five years, the FAA also has seen a jump in government agencies applying for their Certificate of Authorization — from 146 certificates issued in 2009 to 609 in 2014,
the latest year data is available. 

The long and short of it is that drones are everywhere. As law enforcement, not only do you need to know how to police them — you also should know whether or not they may benefit your agency. 

Drones are everywhere.

If you opened a Black Friday sales ad last Thanksgiving, chances are you saw a drone among the technology sold across the country. In fact, consumer reports estimate more than one million drones were sold during the holiday season. 

So if you haven’t seen one yet, don’t worry. You will.

As with most new technology, there are more questions than answers. Legislators everywhere are scrambling to write laws that dictate the rules of the air. The Federal Aviation Administration in December made it mandatory for drone users to register them on the FAA website, but the legality of that measure is still being questioned. Privacy groups are waving the Constitution in protest of Big Brother peeking in private windows during flights. 

There are just as many questions for law enforcement. How can we use it? How do we enforce the laws? What are the laws? What is a Certificate of Authorization? What will the community say? What are the pros and cons? Do we need a warrant to use it? And a favorite among administrators — how much is this going to cost?

Why are there more regulations for law enforcement use than for my 12-year-old neighbor who received a drone for Christmas?

First in the State

Somerset Police Capt. Shannon Smith has been seeking the answers to those questions and more for the past year. Thanks to an established relationship with the Department of Justice, Smith said the DOJ contacted the agency about taking on a drone to test its use in a law enforcement setting. 

“As a result of that request and the appearance that we needed to get a lot of things done up front, we applied for a Certificate of Authorization from the FAA,” Smith recalled. “Eight months later when we finally received that in the form of a training authorization, things had changed with the original offer from DOJ. So we had a COA — which was the first for any law enforcement agency in the state of Kentucky — with no aircraft.”

Somerset Police Officer Shawn Dobbs, right, served as Somerset Police Capt. Shannon Smith’s visual observer while flying the agency’s drone recently. A visual observer is a mandatory requirement among the FAA’s safety rules and regulations. (Photos by Jim Robertson)

Somerset Police Officer Shawn Dobbs, right, served as Somerset Police Capt. Shannon Smith’s visual observer while flying the agency’s drone recently. A visual observer is a mandatory requirement among the FAA’s safety rules and regulations. (Photos by Jim Robertson)

Smith and Somerset Police Chief Doug Nelson considered their options. Nelson approved the purchase of a drone and the necessary equipment for its use at a budget of $2,500 — a significant drop from the $85,000 drones the agency was considering from the DOJ. After some research, Smith chose to purchase what is considered a hobby-level drone — the DJI Phantom III.

“I knew the Phantom III was a viable option,” Smith said. “Once we got it here and unpacked and updated the COA with the FAA, we had been authorized to conduct training flights in a small area in the eastern part of the county, which basically was farm land away from the airport and any controlled airspace. What I thought was going to take a while to get used to — what I had estimated would take hours — really took minutes to get this thing in the air, just because of how these things are engineered and the user-friendly nature in which they are produced. 

“As soon as we got it up and running, after the first couple flights, I started the process of applying for what we call a jurisdictional or operation certificate of authorization,” Smith continued. “That opened up a much larger area for photo missions, crime scene photos, that type of thing.”

It took a month or two to receive the second authorization, Smith said, and after spending some time learning about and operating the technology, he had nothing but good things to say about the drone itself. Particularly when weighed in comparison with the cost and benefits of the agency’s manned aircraft, a light sport gyroplane Smith has flown for SPD for years.

“With the small investment we have in this compared to the value of our manned aircraft and what we are getting in return, the maintenance cost with these things — there really is no comparison,” Smith said. “One estimate says it takes about 10 cents of electricity to recharge one of these batteries on the Phantom III. We have four batteries, so there’s 40 cents it is costing us to fly that thing for over an hour — with about a 23-minute battery life from turning on until it’s completely dead. What it is giving us in return in the form of HD video and very high resolution photos, again, there’s no comparison.” 

Jumping the Hurdles

Operating the drone as a government agency has come with its own set of hurdles, Smith said, though he is hopeful that with time some of those hurdles will be minimalized. 

“Probably the two biggest things are, number one, that you have to have a certificated pilot behind the patrols,” Smith said. “They want you to understand the right-of-way rules, the national airspace system, weather minimums and when you can and cannot fly legally. So, the easy thing for the FAA to do was to say that everybody needs to be a pilot. That puts everybody on a level foundation.

“Second, you have to have visual observers,” Smith continued. “That means you can’t just go out and fly these things with just the pilot. The visual observer is dedicated to scanning the sky for other aircraft to make sure there are no traffic conflicts. They are surveying the position of the aircraft relating to any obstructions or obstacles, which raises the safety factor.”

Before flying the drone, Smith said an operator also is required to file a notice to airman through Washington D.C. The notice lets air traffic control know the area and time frame for the intended flight. The notice on a routine flight must be filed a minimum of two hours in advance. In an emergency situation, a 30-minute heads up is required before the drone can take to the air. 

“That means if we are flying a mission, we have to file a notice saying we are at this particular location between the surface and 400 feet within a .2 nautical mile ring, operating an unmanned aircraft,” Smith said. “This is who I am, this is my certificate number and everything you need to know about my authority to operate the drone. The time frame is probably the biggest hurdle. Granted, by the time you get the phone call and get the information, you turn around and call [the airman], gather the equipment, drive to the location and get briefed, 30 minutes can transpire very quickly. The delay, if any, may be very minimal.”

While the hurdles may seem onerous, jumping them may not be as intimidating as it seems. For example, Smith said he gets many phone calls from officers interested in acquiring a drone for their agency. Most, however, don’t call back when he tells them they have to have a certificated pilot behind the controls, he said.

“There is nothing in the regulations that say the person flying the aircraft has to be a certified police officer, though,” Smith said. “It just says he has to be a pilot. Most communities know a pilot. The only thing he really needs to be is trustworthy and reliable.”

Becoming certified as a private pilot took Smith about one year, he said. Using a local citizen during the time it takes for an officer to become certified may be a viable option for some agencies if they don’t want to rely on a civilian citizen long term.

Smith was invited by the DOJ to sit on a panel of experts in Washington D.C. to discuss drones and related privacy concerns. Among the discussion topics also, he said, was an effort to even the playing field of restrictions and guidelines that apply to government agencies versus private-citizen drone use.

“Hopefully the FAA will relax some of those rules soon so more departments can use drones without having a certificated pilot on staff or under some agreement,” Smith said. “I know the Integration Office is working hard to make this transition into unmanned aircraft as easy as possible.”

Getting Started

As with any piece of technology, there is a lot to consider before investing in a drone. For instance, it’s important to note that there are three categories for drones — commercial use, public use and hobbyist use. Does the drone your community can afford have an attached or integrated camera? What is the quality of the images the drone camera produces? You need to understand how the drone will perform when the skies are less than sunny, how long the battery will last — and how long it takes to recharge. All these things and more are important, but Smith argues the tech specs come secondary to knowing your purpose for using one.

“The number one thing is to identify your need for the drone,” he said. “Don’t let your purchase dictate what type of mission you may use it for. Let the missions you anticipate dictate your equipment. If you can’t get by without thermal imaging, then it doesn’t matter how inexpensive the non-thermal models are, you need to concentrate on thermal.”

Most law enforcement agencies have reported using drones effectively in the following situations:

  • Accident reconstruction
  • Tactical operations
  • Intelligence and evidence gathering
  • Traffic and crowd control
  • Search and rescue efforts
  • Emergency and disaster response

If you’re considering purchasing a drone, determine which of these needs — or any not on this list — would benefit your agency most in operating the aircraft. Once you have an intended purpose, then you can identify which model of drone fits your budget and needs.

Geospatial World, a commercial research group, published a report in late 2014 with a lengthy list of considerations to be made when selecting a drone. Since a drone is only as good as the images it produces, one of the first things GW suggests is to look at the payload design to determine if you can attach a commercial camera or if the drone is equipped with an integrated custom camera. 

“While the first type of system may allow for a greater choice of cameras, the only information provided is imagery — photos and videos,” the report states. “A system with an integrated camera enables more flexibility in the type of information collected, but also the images can be tagged with metadata.”

Taking weather conditions into consideration and reviewing the capabilities of any drone in windy weather also is important, the GW report states. 

“A(n unmanned aerial vehicle) that cannot operate in moderate winds could have a negative impact on how often it can be used reliably in the field,” the report continued. “Adjusting for wind speed at flying altitude is another requirement for a UAV — not just the average wind speed, but also the strength and severity of gusts.”

Many companies will give you the opportunity to request a demonstration of the equipment before purchasing it, which will give you an opportunity to see first-hand how it will perform, the information that can be collected and safety features and how quickly you can review the data. 

“When choosing a UAV in order to maximize (return on investment), ensure results and lasting evidence, the system should be lightweight, portable and easy to use, and offer immediate deployment, specialized imaging payloads, intuitive controls and seamless integration with industry-standard software applications,” the GW report states.

By the Book

Once you review and understand both the FAA rules and all applicable laws, the International Association of Chiefs of Police has created a short set of guidelines they recommend for police agencies using drones.

“We also live in a culture that is extremely sensitive to the idea of preventing unnecessary government intrusion into any facet of our lives,” the IACP Aviation Committee wrote in their recommendations. “Personal rights are cherished and legally protected by the Constitution. Despite their proven effectiveness, concerns about privacy threaten to overshadow the benefits this technology promises to bring to public safety. From enhanced officer safety by exposing unseen dangers, to finding those most vulnerable who may have wandered away from their caregivers, the potential benefits are irrefutable. However, privacy concerns are an issue that must be dealt with effectively if a law enforcement agency expects the public to support the use of [unmanned aircraft] by their police.”

The first of IACP’s suggestions include engaging the community in the beginning of pursuing a drone purchase. Local government members, media representatives, civil liberties advocates and private citizens all should be provided the opportunity to review the cost and benefits analysis, as well as agency procedures as they are drafted, the recommendations state.

Photo from drone.

Photo from drone.

Second, the IACP committee outlines a few system requirements to consider in the technology purchase. For example, it recommends that the selected drone have “the ability to capture flight time by individual flight and cumulative over a period of time.” Purchasing a drone that has a high-visibility paint scheme also is recommended — or painting one in bright colors to increase line of sight should be considered. Perhaps most significantly, equipping the drones with weapons is “strongly discouraged.”

“Given the current state of the technology, the ability to effectively deploy weapons from a small UA is doubtful,”
the recommendations state. “Further,
public acceptance of airborne use of force is likewise doubtful and could result in
unnecessary community resistance to
the program.”

Finally, the committee offers a list of operational procedures and guidance for image retention. Among the recommendations are that all flights be approved by a supervisor, the drone be used strictly for legitimate public safety purposes and a search warrant be obtained prior to flight if, during evidence collection in a criminal case, the drone could intrude upon “reasonable expectations of privacy.”

“We are so far behind the times,” Smith said of American law enforcement using drones. “Canadians have been using these things for many years in collision reconstruction. They get a call, respond to the scene, open the trunk, put batteries in one of these things, lift off and fly for eight to 12 minutes. During that time they take a series of 100 to 200 photos, land, package the drone back up, tell the patrol officer working the scene they are done, call the wreckers and drive off. Then they go back to the agency, download these images into the software, which renders a full-scale, three-dimensional image of that collision scene. If you need measurements, you can get the tire width measurement from this software. It’s just phenomenal what they are doing with this technology.”

Recruitment and Retention: Part II

Recruitment and Retention: Part II

Recruitment and Retention: Part I

Recruitment and Retention: Part I