Unmanned aerial systems for SWAT

UASs may have the wingspan of a Boeing 737 or be smaller than a radio-controlled model, but a pilot on the ground is always in charge of operations

Yesterday we ran a news article about an Alabama police chief who discovered — much to his surprise — that his department owns two remote-controlled surveillance aircraft.

With comments accumulating beneath that story, we’ve been able to find out a little more background. It turns out that Gadsden Police Chief John Crane has been on the job at his PD for only about six weeks, according to a department spokesperson with whom I spoke today.

Chief Crane took the post following his retirement from Birmingham PD, so there is certainly some room for him to be unaware that the Gadsden folks had obtained their two airborne surveillance devices as a result of winning a 2007 Federal grant to counter methamphetamine crime in the area.

Don’t Call Them Drones
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, I must confess the story rekindled my somewhat bizarre interest in police use of UAVs. I wrote my first piece on the subject back in mid-2009, then again during IACP in 2010, and most recently covered the topic about a year ago.

I did a little research today and discovered a few fun facts about the use of drones in the United States at present.

For starters, let’s stop calling these things “drones.” Drones are offensive weapons with offensive firepower capabilities — Predators and Reapers in theatre in the sandbox and whatnot — whereas so-called UAVs carry only surveillance capabilities. Up to now at least, there are no Hellfire missiles dangling from the wings of domestic-use UAVs, so they’re technically-speaking not drones. 

While we’re at it, although “UAV” is the most-commonly-accepted terminology for the devices aloft over the United States, the term UAVs isn’t even an accurate, omnibus moniker for these birds.

Some platforms bear different names. The AeroVironment Wasps in the Gadsden inventory, for example, are called Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs). The labels RPV and RPA — for remotely piloted vehicle and remotely piloted aircraft, respectively — are in use as well.

Perhaps we should just use the term accepted by the FAA. They’ve settled on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to describe airborne devices with the flight crews not positioned on board the aircraft. Then again, seeing as how UAV is a nearly-universally accepted name, I guess we could stick with that too.

The FAA goes on to say, “They may have a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737 or smaller than a radio-controlled model airplane. A pilot on the ground is always in charge of UAS operations.”

UASs in the USA: Where, Why, When?
With the semantics out of the way, how are UASs/UAVs being used in American law enforcement? Well, a quick search on PoliceOne delivered me to a fascinating case in the bucolic berg of Lakota, North Dakota.

According to the story we posted back in December 2011, Nelson County Sheriff Kelly Janke wanted to avoid a standoff situation on the 3,000-acre farm of a one Rodney Brossart, so in addition to calling in “reinforcements from the state Highway Patrol, a regional SWAT team, a bomb squad, ambulances and deputy sheriffs from three other counties” he also called in a Predator B UAS, an aerial platform made available to him by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

For the uninitiated, the Predator B aircraft has a 64-foot wingspan, can stay aloft for up to 18 hours at a typical operational altitude of 19,000 feet, is packed with high-tech surveillance equipment including synthetic-aperture radar and electro-optical/infrared sensors, and can capture high-definition and infrared video of anything within a 25-mile radius of its position. 

“As the unmanned aircraft circled two miles overhead the next morning sophisticated sensors under the nose helped pinpoint the three suspects and showed they were unarmed,” said the article from the Spokesman Review.

“Police rushed in and made the first known arrests of U.S. citizens with help from a Predator, the spy drone [there’s that infernal word again!] that has helped revolutionize modern warfare.”

With the help of that aircraft — the massive and technologically-advanced Predator B — the Grand Forks police department SWAT team pinpointed Brossart’s location, and arrested him.

Just yesterday, according to an article on the website of U.S. News & World Report, Brossart appeared in court with the intention of challenging the legality of the use of that UAS — he calls it “definitely” illegal.

John Villasenor of the Brookings Institution said in that article that he’d be "floored" if the court throws the Brossart case out. Villasenor compared the use of a police UAS to any other police airborne unit, such as a manned helicopter or fixed wing airplane.

“Villasenor points to two Supreme Court cases — California v. Ciraolo in 1986 and Florida v. Riley in 1989 — that allow law enforcement to use ‘public navigable airspace, in a physically nonintrusive manner’ to gather evidence to make an arrest,” said the U.S. News & World Report article.

I agree with the legal eagles like Villasenor who say Brossart hasn’t got a leg to stand on, but I’ll continue to follow the case and keep PoliceOne members posted.

Where else are theses wonderful assets in use? Well, pretty much all over the country. According to a “related article link” beside that U.S. News & World Report piece on the Brossart case, a wide range of organizations — in addition to the military, NASA, and federal and local law enforcement — are allowed to fly drones in American skies, including 25 universities and colleges and a handful of private corporations seeking to invent the next generation of UAV.

The FAA says there are around 300 active operating licenses nationwide at present, and have been as many as 750 licenses issued over the past five or six years.

After a Freedom of Information Act request was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the FAA recently released a list of 63 authorized launch sites for UASs. The EFF then went and plotted a pretty interesting Google Map that shows every agency and/or entity associated with those launch points.

I’m none too pleased that this information has seen the light of day, but now that it’s been revealed to the general public, it surely should be known to law enforcement, too, so I’ve embedded it below.

Getting back to Gadsden
In the news article posted to PoliceOne yesterday, the Chief was quoted as saying that those Wasps “haven’t been used because there hasn't been a need for them.”

I think that’s a rather unfair quote. In fact, I think we can all agree that the Associated Press writer (who isn’t even named atop the article) probably plucked that little nugget with the intended purpose of being a snarky reporter — he or she certainly wasn’t doing the Chief any favors.

But the comments beneath that article do raise a very good question. If your department had resources similar to those in Gadsden, what would you use them for? The upside for SWAT teams is clearly there — as was so clearly demonstrated in the Brossart arrest. Add your thoughts below, or send me an email

Now, Where Are Those Birds? 
Click on the map embedded below in order to zoom in and see where, according to the FCC, those 63 authorized launch sites are located across the United States, as well as the agencies / enterprises associated with those sites.

View Map of Domestic Drone Authorizations in a larger map

About the author

Doug Wyllie is Editor at Large for PoliceOne, responsible for providing police training content and expert analysis on a wide range of topics and trends that affect the law enforcement community. An award-winning columnist — he is the 2014 Western Publishing Association "Maggie Award" winner in the category of Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column — Doug has authored more than 900 feature articles and tactical tips. Doug is also responsible for planning and recording the PoliceOne Podcast, Policing Matters, as well as being the on-air host for PoliceOne Video interviews. Doug also works closely with the PoliceOne Academy to develop training designed to prepare cops for the fight they face every day on the street.

Doug regularly represents PoliceOne as a public speaker in a variety of forums and is available for media interviews — he has appeared on numerous local and national radio and television news programs, and has been quoted in a host of print publications. 

Doug is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers' Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Contact Doug Wyllie

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  2. SWAT
  3. Officer Safety
  4. Standoff Situations
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  6. Airborne / Maritime
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