Police UAVs: Nearly limitless potential
Probably the most obvious use for a UAV in law enforcement is for search and rescue operations, but there are myriad other uses for these high-tech assets
Editor’s Note (06/18/2012): Police UAVs are in the news again, as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has “introduced the Preserving Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, which would require the government to get a warrant before using aerial drones to surveil U.S. citizens,” according to this article from Investor's Business Daily. In the featured item below, originally posted to PoliceOne almost exactly one month before news of Paul’s draft legislation crossed our news wires, we look at some of the excellent benefits for these relatively inexpensive aircraft assets proved to law enforcement officers.
A couple of weeks ago, Gadsden (Ala.) Police Chief John Crane told his local newspaper that his PD has had unmanned aerial vehicles since 2010, but the UAVs — which have video surveillance capability — haven’t been used “because there hasn’t been a need.”
With no disrespect to Chief Crane, I read that line with my jaw on my clavicle. No need?
In a column I wrote in part because of that news article, I posed the question, “If your department had resources similar to those in Gadsden, what would you use them for?” and a few PoliceOne Members chimed right in with suggestions. One such individual was Curtis Sprague, a retired SWAT Officer and former Federal Air Marshal who now serves as director of the aviation division for a company called Tactical Electronics — click here for more on his story — and between just he and me we came up with a handful of outstanding ideas.
Search and Rescue
Probably the most obvious use for a UAV in law enforcement is for search and rescue operations.
“The added benefit of UAV-borne surveillance equipment,” Sprague said, “is that it saves on the cost of operating expensive full-size aviation assets and keeps crews out of harm’s way.”
In many cases, UAV assets can be easily carried in the trunk of a patrol vehicle. In the hands of a skilled operator, they can be deployed and airborne before a host of other types of public safety assets can even be making their way toward the scene.
Whether searching for a suspect or a missing person, EO and Thermal sensors aboard a UAV can prove invaluable.
One of the least obvious applications is the use of UAVs during the investigation of traffic collisions. Using electro-optical sensors with photogrammetry software, the scenes of fatal vehicle collisions can be cleared in a fraction of the usual time.
“Taking measurements related to these collisions can be a tedious process,” Sprague explained. “Our VTOL platform can make one or two passes over the area taking high-resolution, still photos.”
These photos can then be stitched together using software. Photogrammetry technology enables each pixel of the image to be geo-referenced, meaning that measurements can be taken from the photographs back at the company.
“A process that normally might keep the roadway blocked for eight hours can now allow for the normal flow of traffic in the time it takes to remove the debris from the road. Photogrammetry also allows for a three-dimensional, photographic reconstruction of the scene,” Sprague stated.
In the event of a hazardous material spill or terrorist attack, atmospheric sensors can be attached to the vehicle and carried into the cloud or spill. Obtaining readings remotely keeps first responders from exposure to harmful substances and saves time and resources on decontamination processes.
Sampling mechanisms can augment the sensors and allow for the collection of samples when necessary.
SWAT / ESU / EOD
Providing operators with a bird’s-eye view of the scene is important. It is tantamount to holding the higher ground, which has always been considered to give the operator an advantage. Being able to look into an elevated opening on a building can provide entry teams with valuable tactical information and intelligence related to the suspect and previously unseen hazards.
A UAV with the ability to hover, can be an asset to bomb technicians when rugged terrain or elevation prevents ground based robotics from accessing the suspect device. This UAV can provide detailed high-resolution images and could also be used to deliver a charge or other tools for the purpose of exploiting the device.
Back to the more “obvious” applications, let’s close this column out with the use of UAVs for narcotics investigations. The use of a quiet, electric UAV to monitor undercover operations or to conduct surveillance of a suspected drug dealer is an asset any narcotics investigator could use.
Whether to gather descriptions for a search warrant, or to locate a remotely located marijuana plot, a UAV could be used regularly by any narcotics unit.
Get a UAV Program Aloft
Aviation assets have become a valued tool in many law enforcement operations. While we’ll always have a need for full-size aviation — and I will always welcome the offer of a “fly-along” in your department’s full-size aircraft — there are some operations that are very well suited to UAVs.
Not only are today’s UAVs are relatively inexpensive, technology has advanced so much in the past few years that they’re not as difficult to fly as they once were. Furthermore, getting a UAV program started may involve a lot of work, it also may not be as impossible as some naysayers would have you believe.
You can read about some suggestions for getting your UAV program off the ground by checking out my featured column for today, where I continue my conversation with Curtis Sprague of Tactical Electronics.
I’ve written on the topic of police UAVs numerous times in the past — I’ve simply got a somewhat bizarre interest in the topic — and will almost certainly revisit it again down the line. The abovementioned uses for UAVs in law enforcement are likely just the beginning. Add your own thoughts in the comments area below.
Together we can do some good.