How to select the right UAS for your law enforcement mission

While it seems like military and LE drones are just beefed-up consumer drones, that is far from the truth; here’s how to tell the difference


Using a UAS over my house to see if the solar panels need washing is a convenience. If I am careless and hit the edge of my roof breaking a propeller, only the drone and my pride are damaged. My wounded pride will heal, and I can pop a new propeller on and fly another day.

A police officer or firefighter using a UAS is another matter entirely and there could be lives at stake. Here are five considerations before buying a drone for your department.

1. Purchase a UAS designed for LE ops

Consumer drones are a tradeoff between cost and features – and security usually doesn’t come into play. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Consumer drones are a tradeoff between cost and features – and security usually doesn’t come into play. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Consumer drones are just that. While you might carry the same firearm as your shooting buddy, using the same drone is not a good idea. Consumer drones are a tradeoff between cost and features – and security usually doesn’t come into play. In late October 2018, more than 40 drones performing in a professionally organized light show fell from the sky after the GPS signal they were using was jammed, causing $127,500 in damage.

Whatever drones you buy need to be designed and built for law enforcement.

“Agencies don’t want to use commercially available equipment, since that’s what the bad guys can play with and figure out how to attack,” said Joshua K. Brown, President and CEO of Icarus Aerospace Inc.

Many companies are taking their standard product and adding “pro” or “commercial” to the name, but it’s still the same consumer product. The word “tactical” doesn’t mean squat. You need to verify that the drone is secure and can complete your mission without giving away the store to criminal elements. Ensure your drones have encrypted control and data channels and are hardened against jamming. A drone without an internal inertial navigation system to let it safely return to base could wind up like the light show drones in the story linked above.

2. Determine the mission profile(s) where you will want to use a drone.

Once you have your mission profiles, you can evaluate the drone’s capabilities against them. You may need a modular drone that can be equipped for specific missions, or you may need more than one design. For example, what works on the coast in California may not work a mile up in Colorado. Look for a drone that self calibrates in a few seconds then automatically launches. Finally, all of your drones should have similar control systems so that operators don’t need to learn different motor skills to run them.

3. Become familiar with your UAS

Professional drones need specialized skills to run. While almost anyone can fly a consumer drone found under the Christmas tree or hit an outline target at 7 yards with a laser-equipped handgun, not everyone can properly run a drone, be an armorer or be a sniper.

Some armorers can tell what’s wrong just by listening to the trigger, while the best snipers need years of training until they know the performance of their rifle, the trajectory of every load and can do the advanced mental calculations needed to take a shot on the fly.

Brown says that drone operators need to be as intimate with their drone as the sniper is with his rifle. They need to know exactly how a drone will perform under all conditions including weather, altitude, near transmitters and powerlines, near or inside of a burning structure, or in visually challenging conditions such as darkness or smoke.

4. Assign a certified operator

Just like you wouldn’t buy a K9 before you have his partner, don’t buy a drone before you have a designated and certified operator. Brown says that if you wind up in court because of what your drone did or didn’t do, defense counsel could rip you apart if you use an untrained operator. Evidence gathered by the drone could be thrown out or you might have to pay damages to the family of a hostage.

While the FAA offers a remote pilot certification, you may want to ensure that your drone operator holds a certification that is approved by the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards & Training (IADLEST). Like all certifications, drone training needs to be evaluated at intervals as well. Brown recommends an initial qualification followed by annual re-qualifications.

Just like agencies shouldn’t let an officer onto the street unless they have gone through specific scenarios with their FTO, you may want to think about having your operator qualify for specific missions before they can fly UAS in real life. Advanced, practiced skills can be the difference between saving or losing a life.

Start with your operator achieving basic training qualification before moving to more advanced qualification training. Some more advanced skills might be using night vision, and drone deployment during live fire or live structural fires.

To save money and keep property damage to a minimum, operators can fly simulations before flying live. And you really don't want a pilot flying under any of the above conditions for the first time during a live mission.

Brown suggests operators need to 3-5 missions a month to keep up their muscle memory – and these missions should not consist of lazily flying around a park, landing dock or warehouse.

“That is not realistic in any way,” Brown said. “Just like firearms training needs to be done under stress with distracting sights and sounds, drone training needs to try to kick the operator off of their mission. The best training will consist of multiple mission-specific training scenarios, scripted with injects to make them as realistic as possible.”

5. Check with the experts

Most agencies don't have the background to properly evaluate drones. If you don’t know how to evaluate a drone, find someone with the proper training who does. Even if you hire an “expert” they may not be an expert in current policing or they may not be a professionally-trained drone operator.

In addition to LE knowledge, check that your consultant is certified in any mission where you would want to fly your drone. If a consultant isn’t certified to fly near a structure fire, do you want him to tell you what drone to buy if that is how you plan to use it?

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