On June 1, 2017, shortly after 10:00 a.m., the Stafford County, Virginia, Sheriff’s Office was notified that an individual had fired shots into a vehicle parked on private property in the northern part of the county. The male suspect then ran into the woods. A reverse 911 was sent to residents in the area to be on the lookout for the suspect. The sheriff’s office also activated several members of its Special Operations Team, including K9 units and the Special Weapons and Tactical Team (SWAT). An unmanned aircraft system (UAS)—commonly known as a drone—was also launched.
Just over two hours later, the drone identified an individual walking along a power line trail. The male subject retreated back into the woods, but it was too late. Thanks to their “eyes in the sky,” members of the SWAT team were able to identify and converge on his location, and the subject was taken into custody without further incident.
After he was caught, the suspect admitted that, once he heard the drone, he knew he had been discovered. “It was the sound of a thousand bees,” he said. “I knew I had been had.”1
Captain Ben Worcester wasn’t surprised at the subject’s reaction. “The drone has a psychological effect on suspects,” he said. “When they hear it coming, they run.”2
Captain Worcester is the coordinator of the sheriff’s office drone program. He is the first coordinator to hold this position, but judging from the quick success of this new program, he probably won’t be its last. “Drones are changing the game for law enforcement,” said Stafford County Sheriff David P. Decatur. “They provide another set of eyes for our deputies on the ground, telling us real-time details about a situation that we could not see before.”3
The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office is the first law enforcement agency in Virginia to use drones solely for law enforcement purposes, said Captain Worcester and Darren Goodbar, UAS Program Manager – Response Programs for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).4 However, there are other law enforcement agencies using drones in other capacities and yet others that are investigating their use.
There are many federal, state, and local laws pertaining to drones, so each jurisdiction needs to ensure that their drone staff is trained in all of these areas. In Virginia, particularly, Virginia State Code Section 19.2-60.1 titled, “Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems by Public Bodies; Search Warrant Required” is an area that requires law enforcement personnel to look at their traditional training, especially in the Fourth Amendment, from a different perspective.5
“Law enforcement has been trained in the Fourth Amendment,” Captain Worcester said. “But the state code on drones is different than the Fourth Amendment.”6
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals and their private property from unreasonable searches and seizures, with reasonableness being the key factor. However, a search can take place without a warrant under several circumstances. These include a deputy asking for and receiving consent to search; and a search incident to a lawful arrest. In addition, there are exigent circumstances that allow for a search without a warrant, which may apply in situations in which people are in imminent danger, where evidence could be destroyed, or where a suspect is likely to escape.7
The Virginia Code Section 19.2-60.1 is much stricter, according to Captain Worcester.8 It does not allow a state or local government agency that has jurisdiction over criminal law enforcement or regulatory violations to use a UAS except when permitted by a search warrant, or in situations such as when an Amber Alert, Senior Alert, or a Blue Alert is activated.9 The code does allow the use of a UAS to alleviate an immediate danger to any person, to execute training exercises related to such uses, or if a person with legal authority consents to the warrantless search. The Virginia code also permits the use of drones for damage assessment, traffic assessment, flood stage assessment, and wildfire assessment.10
So how is the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office able to use the drone in some of its operations without first obtaining a warrant?
“We can’t go around ‘looking’ for crimes,” Captain Worcester said. “But in these cases when we launch [the drone] without a warrant, we are working to alleviate immediate danger to people.” He cites a case in early June 2017, when an armed robber, who had already committed several armed robberies and a carjacking, fled from deputies in Stafford. “He had a gun and any citizen in that area could have become a hostage,” Captain Worcester said. “The work we did that day to search for him in the woods and capture him was to alleviate immediate danger to nearby citizens.”11
It is important to note that this statute applies only to Virginia and not across the United States. Captain Worcester hopes that the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies can change Virginia State Code Section 19.2-60.1 so that the language allows for the use of drones for searches when probable cause exists.12
Captain Worcester is keeping a detailed log of all the situations in which the sheriff’s office has used the drones. Since the drone program was implemented earlier this year, he has logged more than 50 incidents.13 Besides finding criminals, drones can assist in crime scene documentation and provide evidence that can be used in court. They can also assist in searches for missing people, capture environmental disasters, help with traffic assessments, or aid people in distress, for example, dropping a life preserver or a tow line to them if they are struggling in a body of water.
Other advantages to having drones in agencies’ toolkits include the drones’ low cost; how close they can get to objects such as a house; the low risk to humans on the ground; the ability to deploy multiple drones to assist in a situation (a force multiplier); their ability to engage in covert operations (drones do not make the noise of a helicopter); and their ability to hover in place for an extended duration (something a helicopter cannot do). But using a drone to accomplish these feats involves more than just knowing how to fly it. In addition to the federal and state regulations, there are other factors, such as operations, the management of a drone program, and the integration of the program into a law enforcement agency’s culture that require a strong foundation of training and that needs to be built early in the process.
“It is not easy to implement a drone program,” Captain Worcester said. He recommends that agencies take a methodical approach to getting a drone program up and running, which involves constant training—especially for the stakeholders.14 These could include the individuals who will manage and operate the program, the agency’s command staff, other staff in the agency, a board of supervisors or other elected body that may be responsible for the agency’s budget, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office or an organization’s legal entity, and the public. Training can be as simple as a presentation explaining how the drone works and its benefits, or it can be a formal course consisting of both classroom time and hands-on flying hours, depending on the level of knowledge needed by each group.
Here are a few training lessons that the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office has learned over the last several months as it launched its drone program.
Lesson 1: Learn About the Technology
Besides basic drone operation, two important pieces of the drone technology that public agencies need to learn about and use are zoom capacity and forward-looking infrared (FLIR), also known as thermal imaging. Stafford County’s drones have a tremendous zoom capability, which is helpful in a county that is still covered with large areas of dense woods. In fact, the zoom capability came in handy earlier this year when the sheriff’s office was notified that a plane had crashed in a specific area, but when a team arrived at the location, they did not see any evidence of a plane crash. Public safety crews were launched from that point to search for crash debris or smoke. At the same time, Captain Worcester launched a drone and, within minutes, he was able to determine that a plane had not crashed after all. The drone located a smoky area, but that turned out to be dust kicked up by construction equipment. The quick feedback from the drone removed the need for extensive man crews and ground resources.15
The FLIR feature is important because its detection of infrared radiation emitted by a heat source can help in manhunts and searches for missing people.
“If agencies don’t plan for the acquisition of these two pieces of technology, then the program will plateau quickly,” Captain Worcester said. “They provide so much critical data on situations and are the bread and butter of a drone system.”16
Lesson 2: Assess the Jurisdiction’s Needs
A number of factors play into this issue, including the layout of a community and whether it is easy to navigate or if it features challenging terrain. Stafford County has two areas that are largely developed: the north and south part of the county. The area in between is largely rural with narrow roads and dense woods. If agencies are responsible for search and rescue operations, then the drone technology should be included as part of their staff’s training. Also, if personnel are responsible for making tactical decisions in which aerial data can help inform operators on the ground, then drone technology could play a valuable role in these decisions. Supervisors should ensure that training for these teams includes how to apply the drone technology to the situations they might face on the ground.17
Lesson 3: Assess the Jurisdiction’s National Air Space
The National Airspace System (NAS) is the network of U.S. air space and includes air navigation facilities; equipment and services; airports or landing areas; aeronautical charts; information and services; rules, regulations, and procedures; technical information; and personnel and materials.18 Anything in that network that is shared jointly with the U.S. military is also included in the NAS.19 Before launching a drone, an agency needs to determine if there are safety risks or hurdles with the NAS.20 Stafford County has restricted zones in which drones are not allowed to fly because of the county’s proximity to Washington, DC, and Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, part of which lies in Stafford County. Some companies, such as DJI, which manufactured Stafford’s drones, have “geofenced” the drones from the no-fly zone areas. This means that the drones will automatically shut down and not fly in these zones. The manufacturer can unlock the drones and allow them to fly in these areas, but only with proper law enforcement credentials.21
Law enforcement agencies need to ensure that the staff members who will be operating drones are trained in the NAS and know how it impacts their jurisdictions. They should also check with their drone manufacturers to see if they include the software that will keep the drones from flying in restricted areas.
Lesson 4: Determine a Budget and Funding for a Drone Program
Stafford County’s four drones with the sensors (FLIR and cameras) cost approximately $40,000 in total, which includes just the equipment and does not account for the time that staff devotes to getting training or operating the drones.22 At the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office, the staff members’ work with the drones is conducted as part of their regular duties, so there are no extra funds expended on paying staff members solely for managing and operating the drone program.
The platform from which to launch the drones is also an important factor in determining the drone program budget. Users should decide if they are going to launch the drone from a vehicle, a trailer that’s been modified, or cruisers. A trailer could be a more budget-friendly option, but it may be slower to respond to calls. Stafford County chose to use an existing vehicle in its fleet for its drone program.
Funding consideration should also be given to drone training for staff. Stafford County was able to use the Workforce Credential Grants Program grant through Piedmont Virginia Community College to help pay for staff training.23
Lesson 5: Train the Right Person to be the UAS Proponent
The individual who will lead the UAS program will need a lot of time for research, training, and implementation, Captain Worcester said.24 He or she needs to be able to obtain buy-in from the chain of command and pull together other stakeholders, including the agency’s staff members, prosecutors, elected officials, and other people who will be involved in the program. In addition, this person should be willing to take the time to do a deep dive into the technology and the laws surrounding drone flights, as well as the jurisdiction’s needs and potential uses for drones. According to Captain Worcester, “This person cannot be intimidated by the federal laws and regulations because they are very detailed and can be confusing.”25
Agencies should ensure that the individual they select to manage the drone program is trained to analyze information and to pay careful attention to details. Someone with a background in facilitation would bring value to the agency since the drone manager will need to help staff members understand common objectives and benefits of the program. Finally, the individual should be committed to the program and prepared to stick with it, despite the many rules and long processes he or she will face during the application processes.
Lesson 6: Educate Stakeholders
By collaborating with others, the point person for an agency’s drone program will start educating stakeholders. Captain Worcester tries to educate stakeholders about the program as well as build support for it during that education process. Much of the education he provides comes during missions when other staff members can see firsthand the real-time information that the drone supplies. For example, earlier this year, Stafford County Sheriff’s Office members, including the SWAT team, were preparing to descend upon the house of a drug dealer when the drone captured video of a young girl playing in the front of the house. The video showed the girl running inside the home as soon as she became aware of the approaching patrol cars. This information was relayed in real time to perimeter units moving in on foot, so they were aware of the child’s presence and the probability that the inhabitants were aware of law enforcement’s presence.26
While the drone operations group is responsible for what the drone does in the air and for relaying information back to ground teams, the staff members on the ground need to know how to use the information that the drone team provides. This requires training that will enable the ground teams to be in sync with the drone’s movements in the air. Communication is vital during these situations to ensure that the ground teams and the drone group are working in tandem. Training for the ground teams should include learning about the orientation of the drone and the layout of the red and green LED lighting on the craft, as well as mapping. Captain Worcester and his drone team have started dropping chemical light sticks on points of interest picked up by a drone during a search so the ground crews will have as much information as possible during their operation.27
Lesson 7: Engage the Public
It is no secret that drone technology has raised fears of the loss of privacy across the United States. A drone team needs to be trained in community relations so the members can effectively communicate the hows and whys of the drone program to members of the public in a positive way. They should be trained to answer tough questions about privacy so that they can allay the public’s concerns.
“We were determined to engage the public from the beginning,” Sheriff Decatur said. “Our goal was to take away their fears about ‘Big Brother’ and surveillance.”28
The sheriff’s office invited a reporter from the local newspaper to write an article about the drone program before it was officially launched, and the agency also conducted a demonstration for members of its annual Citizens Police Academy earlier this year and was met with an enthusiastic response. Captain Worcester has also engaged the youth of Stafford County by going to schools and having groups visit the sheriff’s office for demonstrations of the technology. He also presented information to students at this year’s D.A.R.E. Day for Stafford’s fifth grade students.
“Early community outreach is so important,” he said. “When they see a drone in the air, or hear about the work we are doing, they won’t be surprised or have these fears about losing their privacy.”29
Because of the restrictiveness of the Virginia statute on drones, continued engagement with the community, as well as internal staff, will continue to be just as important as those early communications in addressing privacy concerns.
VDEM’s Goodbar explains:
There are two main obstacles facing law enforcement’s development of a drone program. The primary concern is public acceptance. The second is the Return on Investment (ROI) and justification through utilization. It is apparent that Staffordhas taken the public relations issue seriously through advocacy, community outreach and transparency. The coolness will eventually wear off and departments will need to justify the continued funding to their leadership and community. With accurate utilization and operational metrics, officers will be either able to justify more specialized equipment or, conversely, no more funding at all.30
Lesson 8: Identify UAS Team Members and Start Formal Training
The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office has a 12-person drone team. Since the drone work is an additional responsibility for staff, this number helps to ensure that someone is always available to operate a drone.31
As the manager of the drone program, Captain Worcester was the first staff member to complete drone training. In September 2016, he took the 40-hour Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Class through Piedmont Virginia Community College. The class covers the basics of drone aircraft systems, including aircraft sensors, flight operations, and weather and micrometeorology, as well as the NAS, drone-related laws, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, agency integration, and standard operating procedures.32 At the end of the class, Captain Worcester successfully completed the two-hour Part 107 Remote Pilot Airman test administered by the FAA at one of their testing locations (in his case, an airport) and received his pilot’s license. (Part 107 refers to the section of Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) that pertains to drones.33)
Once Captain Worcester completed his training, he coordinated a 40-hour course for the 11 other members of the team in Stafford, which involved a member from Piedmont Virginia Community College coming to the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office to teach the class. Ongoing training also takes place for the team in four-hour training blocks once a month. During the early days of the program, this training consisted mainly of building up flight hours for the members. But now that they have a few missions under their belts, training is more scenario-based. This involves finding “suspects,” feeding information to ground teams, landing the drones in remote locations, or moving a drone with dying batteries to a forward-deployed visual observer who has a cache of batteries.
“We are pushing the boundaries and doing things that the hobbyist wouldn’t normally do because the risk and reward isn’t there for them,” Captain Worcester said. Knowing how to expand the capabilities and benefits of drones will be important, he added. The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office has begun testing indoor flights to evaluate drone use in active shooter situations or during other events when a building must be cleared.34
Lesson 9: Obtain Certificate of Authorization from the FAA
Government organizations can operate drones under two authorities: Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) Part 107 and the Certificate of Authorization (COA).35 The COA permits nationwide flights in Class G airspace at or below 400 feet; self-certification of the UAS pilot; and the option to obtain emergency COAs (e-COAs) or SGI (Special Government Interest) waivers under special circumstances. Stafford County’s Board of Supervisors authorized the sheriff’s office to obtain the certificate for a public agency from the FAA.36 The certificate allows the sheriff’s office to use drones in support of law enforcement operations.
Obtaining the certificate takes time. The first step in the process involved the County Attorney’s Office in Stafford, which had to send a “Public Declaration Letter” to the FAA. This letter affirmed the agency’s status as a government agency that will use the drone to support its public safety efforts through safe observation and information collection, and confirms that the drone will not be used for commercial purposes. The letter was reviewed by the FAA’s Legal Office before the online process to obtain the Certification of Authorization could begin. Stafford County submitted its letter on December 15, 2016, and, once that was approved by the FAA, applied online for the COA. After multiple reviews by FAA, the certificate was approved on January 24, 2017.
Laws and Regulations
The COA is just one piece of the regulation puzzle for drones. The other piece is Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulation (14 CFR) Part 107, which addresses UAS classification, certification, and operating rules for drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The FAA released the new 107 rules in June 2016, which cover operating requirements, pilot certification, UAS certification, and privacy, among other factors.37
The FAA directs drone pilots to avoid manned aircraft and to keep the drone within their visual line of sight or to have an observer who can keep the drone within his or her visual line of sight (VLOS) (although visual observers are not required under 14 CFR Part 107). The maximum allowable altitude is 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or higher if a drone remains within 400 feet of a structure. The maximum speed is 100 mph (87 knots).38
Operations in Class G airspace are allowed without air traffic control permission. Class G airspace is “uncontrolled” airspace in the United States. Under this rule, drones can carry an external load if it is securely attached and does not adversely affect the flight characteristics or controllability of the aircraft. For example. Captain Worcester once used a drone to successfully drop a water bottle to a member of Stafford’s Dive Team during a training exercise.39 The FAA allows waivers of most operational restrictions if an operator can show that his proposed operation can be conducted safely under a waiver.40
To operate a drone, an individual must possess a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who holds such a certificate. To obtain that certificate, individuals must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center (such as the 40-hour training class in which Captain Worcester and his team participated).41
Pilots are responsible for ensuring a drone is safe before flying and must perform a preflight visual and operational check of the small UAS to ensure that safety-pertinent systems are functioning properly.42
The FAA provides drone users with privacy guidelines, but encourages all pilots to check local and state laws before gathering information through remote sensing technology or photography. Other FAA requirements include making an agency’s drone available to the FAA for inspection upon its request and reporting operations that lead to injuries, loss of consciousness, or property damage of at least $500.43
The Value of Both Authorities
The Stafford County Sheriff’s Office pursued both the 107 authority and the COA at the same time, but an agency can obtain the certificate and develop the program without the 107 authority and vice-versa. However, that’s not advised, Captain Worcester , pointing out that ”there are a different set of rules for each one.”44
For instance, the certificate allows for public agencies to “self-train” people, meaning an agency can establish a UAS training program and send its own staff through the program. But, “the 107 system is in place for agencies,” Worcester said. “Its goal is to get people trained and keep them proficient with drone operations.”45
Another difference between the COA and the 107 authority involves keeping track of the drone once it’s in the air. Under the certificate, visual observers need to keep visual line of sight of the drone when it’s in the air. But under 107 rules, visual observers are not required, but one or more may be used. Since Stafford has both the COA and 107 authorities, the drone can be operated with or without the aid of other visual observers, depending on the situation.46
Worcester tries to ensure that observers are always assisting when a drone is launched to make sure the drones don’t crash into other aircrafts, buildings, towers, and trees. The observers are also enhancing their knowledge of drone operations with the hands-on experience during a mission.
Knowing all the differences between the 107 and the COA can be confusing, which is why training staff from the beginning is so important. In addition to the 40-hour class, there are many online training webinars on the 107 and the COA that can be helpful to potential drone users.
For all the enhancements that drones promise to bring to public safety, there are also a few disadvantages that agencies should keep in mind when considering their use. Drones are limited by the FAA to flying below 400 feet; they cannot transport heavy objects or people; and they do not have the same range as manned aviation.47
Still, these drawbacks do not hinder drone advocates. VDEM’s Goodbar believes that drones will become a permanent fixture in law enforcement agencies.
Drones will become more accepted as specialized tools to expedite evidence collection, increase capabilities of municipalities without a “helicopter budget” but a definitive need for an eye in the sky. In the near future, I anticipate municipalities increasing their operational scope by integrating and operating true helicopter/airplane alternatives available for their individual needs and becoming less reliant on assets from Virginia State Police or mutual aid requests to surround municipalities or entities. Additionally, personally deployable drones for SWAT teams will become standard issue equipment for team leaders and advanced imaging drones will be deployed more frequently and effectively by crime scene investigators, crash analysis, and other events.48
Stafford County officials hold a similar view. “Drones are not going away,” Sheriff Decatur said. “As more law enforcement agencies learn about them and realize the enormous value they add to public safety, we think we will see them used on a regular basis in all areas of law enforcement. That’s the buzz on the street.”49
Or the sound of a thousand bees.
1Ben Worcester (lieutenant, Special Operations, Stafford County Sheriff’s Office), interview, June 8, 2017.
3David Decatur (sheriff, Stafford County Sheriff’s Office), interview, June 5, 2017.
4Darren Goodbar (UAS Program Manager – Response Programs, Virginia Department of Emergency Management), email to Cathy Vollbrecht, June 13, 2017.
5Virginia General Assembly, Virginia State Code, § 19.2-60.1.
6Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
7Jonathan Kim, “Fourth Amendment,” Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute, June 2017.
8Worcester, interview June 8, 2017.
9Virginia General Assembly, Virginia State Code, § 19.2-60.1 C. (i–iii)
11Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
18U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap, 1st ed. (Washington, DC: FAA, 2013).
21Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
28Decatur, interview, June 5, 2017.
29Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
30Goodbar, email, June 13, 2017.
31Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
32Piedmont Virginia Community College, Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) Operations for Public Agencies Brochure.
33FAA, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Frequently Asked Questions,” May 10, 2017.
34Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
35FAA, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Frequently Asked Questions.”
36Stafford County Board of Supervisors Meeting, Stafford, Virginia, December 13, 2016.
37FAA, “DOT and FAA Finalize Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” press release, September 19, 2014.
39Worcester, interview, June 8, 2017.
41Worcester, interview June 8, 2017.
48Goodbar, email, June 13, 2017.
49Decatur, interview, June 5, 2017.