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Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) are currently being used around the world for the several applications in law enforcement, including surveillance, accident investigations, intelligence gathering, natural disaster management, protection of critical infrastructure, tactical, riot control, and search and rescue missions. With the cost of a sUAS around the price of a police cruiser, these vehicles are finally starting to fit into police budgets.
The most logical sUAS platform of choice for law enforcement is the battery-powered multicopter. Multicopters have the best blend of safety, low cost, ease of use and functionality of all the classes of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Benefits of multicopters include improved officer safety and staffing multipliers. Some examples of use in law enforcement include:
• Provide aerial photos and videos for another perspective at crime scenes and accident investigations.
• Observe suspects through building windows. (A thermal imaging sensor can be added to observe suspects at night or during low-visibility conditions.)
• Check behind buildings and in dangerous areas from a safe distance.
• Search and rescue, tactical operations, forensics, crowd control, emergency response, fire and damage assessment, and chemical spills can all benefit from an aerial perspective.
The FAA is responsible for formulating the regulations for sUAS. To obtain FAA approval for operation, law enforcement agencies can now apply for an expedited certificate of authorization (COA). A sUAS weighing less than 25 lbs. can be flown below 400 feet. It is important to select a sUAS that has already gone through the approval process. Buying one not on the approved list could extend airspace approval up to six months.
Make sure your sUAS has an autopilot to make operation easier. A few days of flight training is important to learn the basics.
Knowing how to fly a particular sUAS is just the beginning. The FAA is currently finalizing the certification process, but it will likely require a ground school and exam. Other possible requirements include flight proficiency training and proficiency exams, medical exams, and separate and trained observers and camera operators.
Most sUAS suppliers offer training on their own products, but to obtain a pilot certificate, you will need to secure the training through a local school. Perform an Internet search for “unmanned vehicle schools.” Check their syllabus to obtain the training that your personnel require. Some schools offer UAV primers for LE agencies seeking more knowledge.
Several professional multicopters are available today. Although toy multicopters with cameras start at $50, highly reliable systems with encrypted communications and digital video start at $15,000 and can cost more than $100,000, depending on their capabilities.
With the market being virtually nonexistent to date due to FAA regulations, the volume of professional models is very low. As the use of sUAS proliferates, prices will decrease drastically and functionality will increase. sUAS today are like computers in the 1970s, and the market is getting ready to explode. Expect fully functioning sUAS to be less than $10,000 with far improved functionality in just a few years.
In addition to training and dealer support, stability, durability and flight times are very important. Since multicopters have no wings to fly on, the rotors lift all the weight. Therefore low weight is critical to long flight times. Carbon fiber technology keeps the weight down.
Sophisticated stabilization systems are the norm. Most sUAS can take a lot of abuse. However, there are tradeoffs in designs. Key procurement personnel should be trained to ask the proper questions to purchase the best product for your needs.
Some citizens fear that drones will invade their privacy. Congress is currently working on a solution to this problem. The topic of weaponization is also being debated. Some LE agencies argue that the sUAS could use the same equipment that ground-based LE officers use. Private pilots may have a fear of collisions with sUAS. This concern is reduced by the requirement for pilots to remain above 1,000 feet, while sUAS are required to remain below 400 feet.
Other concerns will surely arise. If your organization plans to invest in sUAS technology, it’s essential that you stay up to date on the public and LE concerns and address them in your community.
Low-cost “eyes in the sky” are coming. Technology will rapidly advance and costs will decrease.
As the United States continues on its current path to become the worldwide leader of drone technology, drone use will be ever-widening. This is a very exciting technology that will someday be as commonplace as security cameras. Obtain training now so that you can make the best decisions in equipment purchases now and in the future.
Gene Payson is the owner of a UAV distributorship and teaches sUAS fundamentals and sUAS flight training. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941/313-0074.