Police drones
Public Safety

Police Drone Program: The Chief Wants One. Now What?

So you’re a public safety officer and your chief stops you in the hallway one day to talk about a police drone program. He just saw a news story on unmanned aerial vehicles. Now he’s interested in the benefits of using drones in your department. He knows drones are one of your favorite hobbies, so he wants you to develop and implement the department’s official UAV program. How hard could it be? Buy a drone, teach a few others how to fly it, add drones to your policies, and soon you’ll have drones catching criminals and saving lives in no time.

If only it was going to be that easy!

Many industries are looking to add drones to their business model, and public safety agencies are no different. Drone aerial intelligence is set to be a game changer when it comes to saving lives. That’s why police drone programs are growing.

A manned aviation unit can cost agencies millions of dollars, making drone programs cost prohibitive for modest budgets. Typically, surrounding jurisdictions share the resource of a larger agency’s aviation unit. However, it can end up as a first come, first serve resource, and not always available. A public safety agency can purchase and maintain a UAV at a fraction of the cost of a manned aviation unit, while providing many of the same advantages. In this post, we’ll review the initial steps for introducing a public safety drone program.

Needs of Your Public Safety Agency

The first step is sitting down and determining the needs of your agency. Every agency is different. Some agencies are very large, covering expansive areas, employing hundreds of officers. They might deploy a UAV daily. Others might be small town departments with only a few officers. They would fly their UAV only a few times a month. Despite the differences in size, departments deal with many of the same calls in which a UAV would be an important tool.

Your agency’s crime analyst or records specialist is a great resource. The information they record and track gives you an idea of what types of calls are common. Also they answer the questions of when these incidents happen, where they happen, what resources were used, and what resources would have been advantageous if available. With this information, you can begin to tailor the UAV program to your agency’s specific needs.

police drone program

Talk to other divisions about where they would be able to use a UAV in their operations. This can open up possibilities for use and help these units be more effective. Think outside the box about uses. Make sure to note any hurdles, such as restrictive airspace within your jurisdiction, that can lead to difficulties with UAV operations.

Find out if anyone in the department has aviation experience. A UAV unit will operate in a very similar manner to a manned aviation unit. Even if that person is not experienced in remote aircraft piloting, it is very helpful to have someone who is well versed in airspace, weather, and FAA regulations.

This is initial planning and will be further refined as the program develops, but it points you in the right direction.

Gaining Support For a Police Drone

Today’s newspapers and broadcasts are filled with stories involving drones. Some are positive, many are negative. For most people, the only knowledge they have of drones is from the news. For a successful UAV program, you will need the support of the citizens you serve, the city or county government, and the administration of your agency.

Making the UAV program’s purpose and use as transparent as possible to the public is very important during this step. Many people see the stories regarding drone surveillance and fear they will be spied on. The goal here is to reduce these fears by showing the public what a drone can and can’t do. The opinion of citizens and city or county government can make or break the UAV program.

If your agency has a community relations or crime prevention unit, they can help provide opportunities to introduce the UAV program to the public. These events give citizens a first hand look at what the UAV is intended for, the capabilities of a drone, and, most importantly, answer questions and dispel concerns. Make the event interactive with the public. Prepare a presentation for a city or county council meeting. Do not forget to address UAV uses outside of the public safety agency. For example, when the building department learns you can perform a roof inspection in a fraction of the time that it would require them and save them some work, you will have gained a great ally. A little public relations work at this point can pay big dividends down the road.

Contact your agency’s legal advisor. They can provide great insight into where they believe legal issues will arise and how to avoid them.

Networking with other agencies that are in the process, or have already established a UAV program, is essential. Don’t reinvent the wheel. A short phone call can drastically reduce your workload. I’ve yet to contact someone who was not enthusiastic about discussing drones, and how they use them.

Certificate of Authorization or 107?

Before August 2016, public safety agencies had to operate with a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. This process could be long and complicated. It discouraged many agencies from implementing a UAV program. The process of applying for a COA has been streamlined recently and some agencies find advantages with the COA that works well for them.

In August 2016, the FAA formally implemented 14 CFR Part 107. This section of regulations specifically covers the commercial operation of UAV’s, and included the creation of the remote pilot certificate.

With the release of 14 CFR  Part 107, public safety agencies had another option to operate a drone. Many of the agencies that I recently spoke to have decided to operate under part 107 as they found it easier than acquiring a COA. Part 107 is a new set of regulations that will evolve in the coming months and years.

Both a COA and Part 107 have advantages and disadvantages. However, parts of the two options cannot be combined. The agency must either follow their approved COA as written, or only operate under part 107 regulations and apply for waivers as needed for your operation. Contact other agencies in your area for opinions on how they operate and why it works for them. Consideration of how your agency plans to operate the UAV will dictate which route you choose.

Time to Write a Policy

Fire department and dronesPublic safety agencies live and breathe on the policies and directives they establish. Some policies cover state statute requirements, accreditation standards, or even something less than smart that no one wants repeated. But, no matter why the policy was created,  they must be followed as written.

When beginning to write the policy for your UAV program, the agencies you’ve contacted can provide the policies they have developed for their own UAV units. Once you begin reviewing other agencies’ policies, you will find that certain items are repeated in many of them, and others are very specific to the individual agency. Take the portions that are useful to you and build them into your own policy.

This is an important step as you are laying out the ways in which the police drone can be operated, but also adding restrictions to that operation. Be careful of writing a portion of the policy that would be easily violated during your normal operations, or prevent the UAV from being used effectively.  If your policy is written “Flight at night is prohibited” during the early stage of the UAV unit development and before securing a waiver, then flight at night is prohibited with no exceptions until the policy is amended. The possibility of having the policy amended at 3 a.m. when you are attempting to find a suspect, is just about zero. Make sure to create a balance that promotes a safe operating environment, and allows the UAV to be used effectively.  Don’t paint yourself into a corner that would require a policy to be rewritten for your required operations.

After finishing your police drone policy, contact your agency’s legal department to have them review it for any issues that could arise from the wording of a section.

Local and State Legislation Regarding Police Drone Usage

After deciding whether you are going to operate under a COA or Part 107, establish your requirements under the FAA’s jurisdiction. The FAA has exclusive jurisdiction over the national airspace system. This limits local and state legislators from enacting laws to govern airspace use, training requirements, and aircraft maintenance requirements. However, laws traditionally related to state and local police power, such as land use, zoning, privacy, trespass, and law enforcement operations can be legislated at the state and local level.

This means that an agency that wishes to use a UAV for law enforcement purposes must conform to the state or local legislation that has been enacted. This typically involves topics of privacy and surveillance. If you have specific questions that would apply to your area of operations,  contact your state’s Attorney’s Office. They can provide consultation on the best way for you to operate. The development and enactment of this legislation can happen as fast as the technology evolves, so it is paramount to stay involved with the current laws and regulations that are already enacted, as well as those in development. These laws can drastically effect how a law enforcement agency can operate a UAS.

Deciding on an Aircraft that Fits Your Police Drone Program

Finally, you are getting to the fun part: shopping for your aircraft. From your previous research, you should have a relatively good idea of what performance needs you require. For the aircraft itself, this typically includes the battery life/flight time and the payloads it can carry. You must also consider other factors: Is the manufacturer an established and reputable company? How is customer support handled? Does the company support older products with upgraded firmware or mechanical parts? These questions are very important for the longevity of a UAV program. Buying a great product, only to put it on the shelf after a year because it became obsolete does not look good to the finance department.

Go to other agencies that have established police drone programs and see what they fly, how they use it, and how it would work for your agency’s needs. Fly before you buy when possible and take into account that even if you have experience in flying drones, you will most likely be training personnel that will be operating a remotely piloted vehicle for the first time.

After deciding on an aircraft, it is time to put together your budget. Now is also the time to cash in on your previous public relations work. The budget must be written to include all financial factors that would be required for the UAV unit to function. This will include the aircraft, all required accessories, maintenance, training, pilot currency, etc. Do not create a budget that is short-sighted and has no margin just to increase the chance of having it approved. Buying a $3000.00 drone and not budgeting for the purchase of extra batteries will reduce the effectiveness of your police drone program. Plan to have a reasonable expenditure cushion so that the budget can cover unexpected purchases or replacement items.

If your department has an individual who deals with grant writing it is very worthwhile to inform them of your plans. Several agencies have been able to partially or fully fund their UAV program under a government grant. The time spent researching and writing a grant can be very worthwhile. As more agencies develop UAV programs these grants will become more competitive.

Training Officers for Your Police Drone Program

Police drones can help officers.Most public safety agency UAV programs are initiated by an employee that is already experienced with aviation, flies remote controlled aircraft as a hobby, and can see the benefit of their use for the agency. These individuals may be the only people in the department who have that experience and knowledge. But unless they will be available 24/7, you need other officers trained as pilots, payload operators and visual observers. Many of these people might have no previous experience with aviation, or remotely piloted aircraft.

Your decision to operate with a COA or under part 107 regulations will determine some of your training requirements. If your agency is operating with a COA, you may “self certify” your operators. The agency itself will take on the liability for the training of pilots and operation of the aircraft. It is imperative to have a detailed and complete training program to document how the training was conducted. This is not to say that an agency that has chosen to follow part 107 regulations can cut corners in training its operators, but the pilot-in-command must hold an FAA sUAS remote pilot certificate. This gives credence that the pilot-in-command was able to gain the knowledge as required by the FAA to operate the aircraft in a safe manner.

For most agencies, the training regimen for UAV pilots shares many similarities that would be found with a manned aviation unit. Pilots are expected to operate the aircraft at an acceptable level of skill before being considered a qualified pilot, will log their flight time, will be expected to maintain flight currency, will attend training events to practice old skills or learn new ones, and will follow the guidelines as established by the agency.

Part 107 Drone Certification

It is important to consider training expenses when creating the UAV program budget. Depending on how many officers are going to be selected as UAV pilots and their overall experience, the cost of training and maintaining flight currency can become substantial.

Putting it all together

As you can tell by now, the process of acquiring and operating a drone for a public safety agency can be quite involved. Each of the sections above could easily be expanded into a complete article all their own. For the UAV program to succeed entire department, not just the trained individuals, must be dedicated to it.

Public safety agencies are typically slower at adopting new technology until many of the legal ramifications are clarified. The current number of agencies adopting UAV technology is still small, but it grows every day. Reach out to other agencies to find out what works for them, and also what doesn’t. There will be growing pains, and learning moments. But, when your department can say that the use of a UAV was crucial to saving a life one day, all of the hard work developing your police drone program was worth it.

At a glance

Check out DARTdrones training the Scranton Police Department.

DARTdrones’ emergency services training course page.

Mike Uleski is one of DARTdrones many expert pilot instructors and also a public safety officer. He has written extensively for DARTdrones about how police can use UAVs. He wrote this post about police drone programs.

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