No runway needed

The role UAVs can fulfill in law enforcement

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.

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