How unmanned aerial systems can assist police pursuits

Having an ‘eye in the sky’ can be a key tool for both foot pursuits and short-range vehicle pursuits


Editor's note: Law enforcement agencies nationwide are adopting unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – also known as drones – for operations as diverse as search and rescue, traffic accident reconstruction and SWAT response. PoliceOne’s special coverage series – 2018 Guide to Drones in Law Enforcement – takes an in-depth look at considerations for police departments looking to implement a UAS program.

By Michael Uleski

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – commonly referred to as drones – are transforming daily operations within many industries.

Public safety agencies are also starting to use drones to augment response. One area of potential value for law enforcement is supplementing police pursuits with unmanned aerial systems.   

How a drone can be used during a pursuit

A vehicle just fled a traffic stop. The driver, aware his driver’s license is suspended, knows the agency has a strict no-chase policy and, if he runs, no one will chase him.

The driver is correct. The officer turns off his vehicle’s emergency lights and slows down, terminating the pursuit.

A short distance away the driver stops at a traffic light after no longer seeing any law enforcement in the vicinity, and attempts to merge back into normal traffic. Suddenly, several patrol vehicles arrive and block the vehicle in before it can move through the intersection. The driver is taken into custody without any idea how the police followed him.

Over a half mile away, a drone is recovered by one of the agency’s UAS pilots. The drone had been launched just after the driver fled, and the pilot was able to locate the vehicle in the area based on a description provided by the initiating officer. The drone followed the vehicle – almost silent at an altitude of 300 feet above the ground – while the pilot relayed vehicle position reports to ground-based units. The trap was set and, when the opportunity came, it was sprung.

Current UAS technology

There has been explosive growth in the use of unmanned aerial systems over the past few years. For many smaller law enforcement agencies, drones provide the advantages of an aerial perspective that was previously only available with a manned aviation resource.

Commercial, off-the-shelf models are now capable of flying to ranges of more than 5 miles, speeds of 50+ mph, flight times of 30 minutes or more, and with both visual and thermal camera systems for day and night operations.

GPS positioning systems and autonomous flight path programming maintain the aircraft’s position, while the pilot can concentrate on mission critical intelligence gathering and communication.

Telemetry from the UAS provides real-time aircraft position monitoring, which displays the aircraft on a moving map to include showing locations and street names on the ground. This specific capability greatly assists the pilot with ground unit coordination.

All of this technology allows a UAS to be a key tool in foot pursuits and short-range vehicle pursuits.

Navigating FAA drone regulations

Although a drone is an efficient, safe and cost-effective solution for foot pursuits and short-range vehicle pursuits, current FAA drone regulations do pose a limiting factor to long-distance vehicle pursuits.

Even though many existing unmanned aerials systems are capable of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight, FAA drone regulations require the UAS to be flown within visual range of the pilot-in-command or visual observers, unless a FAA waiver is granted. However, technologies are being developed to allow for air traffic avoidance systems that will make BVLOS flight safe and efficient, thus opening the door for more advanced law enforcement operations. These regulations will change as the technology shows it can be used safely within the national airspace system.

Pilots must also follow weather requirements including 3 statute miles of visibility in the operational area, and cloud clearances of 500 feet below and 2000 feet horizontal.

In addition to abiding by all FAA drone regulations, states and local municipalities have enacted various legislation regulating UAS use. This will require research into regulations within your specific state and local area of jurisdiction.

Being effective and knowledgeable

There is much more to successfully operating a drone than just flying it. One point to remember is that the UAS is a tool within your toolbox. The technology does possess unique attributes, and it is important to understand how a UAS can be utilized as a tool for various incidents. An agency must establish policies, directives, training and standard operating procedures related to UAS use.

Even with the technology the UAS possesses, pilots need to develop hand/eye coordination skills to safely fly the aircraft. Pilots must also be knowledgeable of UAS systems and performance, FAA regulations, state and local legislation, weather, communications, aeronautical decision-making and risk mitigation.

The future for drones in law enforcement

The current pace of UAS development – both technological and regulatory – is very fast. Technology that was considered to be at a prototype stage a few years ago is now in common use. Regulations that limited UAS use will continue to evolve as technology advances. There is no doubt that drones in law enforcement will increasingly change police operations and continue to benefit society as a whole.


About the Author
Mike Uleski is the chief public safety instructor at DARTdrones and an active sergeant who is cross-trained as a law enforcement officer, firefighter and EMT. He has a degree in Aeronautical Sciences from Embry-Riddle, is a commercial pilot certificate with single-engine, multi-engine and instrument ratings, and has 17 years of experience building and flying remote-controlled aircraft.

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