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.
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.”