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Unmanned Aircraft Systems: All the Boxes Checked, but Challenges Remain

By Brett Davis, Vice President of Communications and Publications, Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, Arlington, Virginia; and Don Roby, Captain, Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department, and Chair, IACP Aviation Committee

recent article in Police Chief magazine outlined factors to consider when purchasing technology. Is it cost effective? Is it training intensive? Will it require service and maintenance? What is the operational need—does it make the jobs of officers safer, easier, or more effective?1

Draganflyer in flight.
Photo courtesy of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputy Amanda Hill prepares to launch the department’s Draganflyer X6 UAS.
Photo courtesy of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office.
Constable Marc Sharpe of the Ontario Provincial Police operating a Draganflyer X-6 UAS.
Photo courtesy of Scott Hlady and the Airborne Law Enforcement Association.
These are the questions to ask when a police department considers whether or not to procure a new technology. And with public resources at stake, it is critical to carefully weigh the benefits of the technology and how it will enhance the department’s ability to protect the communities it serve.

It is no wonder why more and more law enforcement agencies across the United States are interested in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). UAS have the potential to help law enforcement agencies save time, save money, and most importantly, save lives. They are ideal for dangerous or difficult situations like executing high-risk warrants; responding to barricaded subjects; gaining situational awareness in difficult terrain; or responding to the damage caused by emergencies such as natural disasters, downed power lines, or hazardous material incidents.

UAS check all the boxes of the technology check list. First, they are cost effective. Many systems cost about the same amount as a squad car with standard law enforcement equipment. Their operational costs can provide police departments with remarkable savings. Ben Miller is the unmanned aircraft program manager with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, one of the few law enforcement agencies in the country with a certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly unmanned systems. During a recent hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Miller told senators about the cost effectiveness of UAS.

“I estimate unmanned aircraft can complete 30 percent of the missions of manned aviation for 2 percent of the cost,” said Miller. “The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office projects the direct cost of unmanned flight at just $25 an hour as compared to the cost of manned aviation that can range from $250 to thousands of dollars per hour.”2

The costs associated with UAS for training, as well as maintenance, are not prohibitive. The systems, which are often small and weigh less than five pounds, are much more affordable and easier to use than the unmanned aircraft designed for use by the military.

Most importantly, UAS help check the last box—they help make an officer’s job safer, easier, and more effective. Whether it is a barricaded subject or a hostage situation, providing an aerial view of a search area or assessing damage from a natural disaster, UAS provide critical situational awareness without putting a human in harm’s way.

However, expanding the use of UAS among public safety agencies is a challenge. vThe use of UAS domestically by law enforcement remains in its infancy because of the arduous FAA authorization process. Despite growing interest within the law enforcement community regarding the use of UAS, only a small handful of departments have obtained a COA to permit them to fly a UAS in civilian airspace.

“The process was rigorous; it was long,” said Miller at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. “It took us approximately eight months to get the certificate that allows us to fly.”3

Fortunately, last year Congress passed and the president signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which streamlines this process and directs the FAA to plan for the expanded use of unmanned aircraft by 2015.

Not only will the new law make the COA application process easier, it will help advance the technology itself, making it more effective for use by law enforcement and others. The law directed the FAA to establish six test sites around
the country for the development of UAS. As of the end of March, 50 applicants from 37 states had applied to receive a test site, eyeing the economic benefit a test site would bring to a local economy. Once the sites are established, manufacturers and end users including law enforcement will be able to test the technology for a variety of applications, honing it to help assist search and rescue, crime scene documentation, disaster response, or other specific public safety missions.

While the COA process is being streamlined, another issue looms large over the use of UAS—privacy. The ink of the president’s signature on the FAA bill had barely dried when privacy groups and civil liberties advocates voiced concerns about how the technology would be used. While acknowledging the value of UAS for search and rescue missions or helping battle wild fires, these groups specifically want limits on law enforcement’s use of UAS. Last year, several bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress that would have severely restricted the use of UAS by law enforcement, limiting their ability to effectively use the technology to keep communities safe.

In a recent column in the Washington, D.C., publication The Hill, Tim Adelman, a legal expert on the use of UAS by law enforcement, called many of these bills “ill-conceived.”

“The dozen or so bills introduced in recent months addressing unmanned aircraft and the issue of privacy not only demonstrate a misunderstanding of current law, but could have unintended consequences that hamper law enforcement officers’ ability to safely and efficiently do their jobs,” wrote Adelman.4

Privacy concerns are legitimate. However, while there is plenty of case law built upon the foundation laid out by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting U.S. citizens from unreasonable searches, the use of UAS by law enforcement is a new development and a reasonable conversation about their use is entirely appropriate.

Last year, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) published a “Code of Conduct” emphasizing safety, respect, and professionalism in the use of UAS technology by those who design, manufacture, and operate the technology. The code explicitly states that we will respect the privacy of individuals.5

“Safeguarding people’s privacy is important to my industry, as well,” said AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano during testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “AUVSI believes all stakeholders can work together to advance this technology in a thoughtful way that recognizes the benefits and fuels job creation, while protecting Americans’ safety, as well as their rights.”6

In August 2012, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) took an important step when it released a set of guidelines for the use of UAS by law enforcement. The guidelines cover a range of issues including community engagement, system requirements, operational procedures, and image retention. They encourage community engagement and transparency with regard to how and when UAS will be used, as well as protections put in place to uphold citizens’ rights.

“Despite their proven effectiveness, concerns about privacy threaten to overshadow the benefits this technology promises to bring to public safety,” the IACP stated. “From enhanced officer safety by exposing unseen dangers, to finding those most vulnerable who may have wandered away from their caregivers, the potential benefits are irrefutable. However, privacy concerns are an issue that must be dealt with effectively if a law enforcement agency expects the public to support the use of UAS by their police.”7

Soon after the IACP released the guidelines, they were endorsed by AUVSI and adopted by several law enforcement agencies. The Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association (FBI–LEEDA), and the FBI National Academy Associates (FBINAA) endorsed the guidelines that same month.

The guidelines were well received, even by those voicing concerns about law enforcement’s use of UAS. For example, an analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union called them “quite strong” and wrote that “the IACP is to be applauded for addressing the issue.”8

The guidelines provide a comprehensive road map for any law enforcement agency looking to deploy UAS technology while safeguarding people’s rights. After all, many law enforcement agencies considering using UAS want to do so in instances when individual privacy is not at issue.

However, despite the publication of the guidelines, it quickly became clear that challenges remained. Residents in several communities across the country including Seattle, Washington, and Alameda County, California, have raised concerns with the use of UAS by law enforcement, however unfounded.

These concerns have led to legislation being introduced in state legislatures that would deny public safety agencies a potentially life-saving tool. The Arlington, Texas, Police Department successfully petitioned the FAA for approval to use unmanned aircraft for missions including search and rescue, surveys of flooded areas and other natural disasters, clearing traffic crashes more quickly, and analysis of hazardous material spills. However, legislation introduced in Texas could hinder the department’s ability to use the technology.

“While we understand and support the intent of this proposed bill, and other similar bills, we strongly believe that the passage of this bill would significantly impede law enforcement’s ability to protect and serve our community,” wrote Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson in a letter to a state legislator who introduced restrictive legislation.9

It is clear that the perception of unmanned aircraft is still largely shaped by how the public sees it being used in counterterrorism missions abroad, even though their domestic use would be quite different. This is why communication about how unmanned aircraft will actually be used domestically from those who will use it is critical. By adopting and publicizing guidelines for the use of UAS, law enforcement agencies give the public a clear picture of how, when, and why law enforcement is using UAS. Allaying the public concern is a critical step in putting the technology to use keeping officers safe as they do their jobs.

When the public sees the reality of public safety’s use of UAS, rather than the sensationalism, it is supportive. According to a national poll conducted last year by Monmouth University, 80 percent of Americans support the use of unmanned aircraft to help in search and rescue missions, while about two-thirds of Americans support their use in tracking down runaway criminals and protecting U.S. borders. Another poll conducted by the Associated Press found that more people support allowing police forces to use UAS to assist in their work than oppose. That same poll found that more people are concerned that social networking sites like Facebook will cause them to lose privacy than police departments using UAS.

In the not too distant future, UAS technology will be a fixture in missions to find a lost child, respond to a devastating earthquake, or defuse a dangerous situation. But in order to get there, lawmakers, the public, and other stakeholders must understand why public safety agencies’ use of UAS will benefit not only the agencies, but the communities they serve as well. This will require an open and consistent dialogue between law enforcement agencies and their communities about the benefits afforded by UAS, and the measures—as outlined in the IACP guidelines—by which citizens’ rights will remain protected. ♦


1Paul D. Schultz, “The Future Is Here: Technology in Police Departments,” The Police Chief 75 (June 2008): 20–25, (accessed May 1, 2013).
2Ben Miller, “The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Concerns,” written testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, March 20, 2013, (accessed April 22, 2013).
4Tim Adelman, “Flurry of ‘Drone’ Bills Shows Congress Has Much to Learn,” The Hill, September 20, 2012, (accessed April 22, 2013).
5Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, “Unmanned Aircraft System Industry ‘Code of Conduct,’” (accessed April 22, 2013).
6Michael Toscano, “The Future of Drones in America: Law Enforcement and Privacy Considerations,” opening statement before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing, March 20, 2013, (accessed April 22, 2013).
7IACP Aviation Committee, Recommended Guidelines for the Use of Unmanned Aircraft (August 2012), (accessed April 22, 2013).
8Free Future: Protecting Civil Liberties in the Digital Age, “Police Chiefs Issue Recommendations on Drones; A Look at How They Measure Up,” blog entry by Jay Stanley, August 17, 2012, (accessed April 22, 2013).
9William Johnson, “Opposition to HB 912 Texas Privacy Act,” letter to Representative Lance Gooden, March 25, 2013.

Please cite as:

Brett Davis and Don Roby, "Unmanned Aircraft Systems: All the Boxes Checked, but Challenges Remain," The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 60–63.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 6, June 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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