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Law Enforcement and Security Use of Small Unmanned Aerial Systems: Opportunities and Challenges

By Joseph Rector, Deputy Director, United States Air Force

Joseph Rector, Deputy Director, United States Air Force

For the last couple of years, much of the focus by federal agencies on Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) has been on countering the threat posed by these systems. The recent attack on two Saudi Aramco refineries clearly demonstrated the effective use of sUAS for nefarious purposes by state and non-state actors. Often overlooked though is the valuable use of sUAS to support law enforcement and security operations in the public and private sector. The systems provide a great opportunity for organizations wishing to provide an additional tool to their response capabilities. Their use also has challenges and risks.

For law enforcement agencies, sUAS can be useful in a variety of situations. First off, they provide an aerial capability for police departments who cannot afford manned aviation assets. Rotary and fixed-wing can be very expensive to procure and operate. A sUAS is perfect for a small department with a limited budget.

They can be used to document outdoor crime scenes or accident sites, especially those crime scenes or accident sites that may cover a large area. The birds-eye view of a sUAS can provide a different perspective that can aid investigators to locate evidence that might not normally be visible or overlooked from a ground-level view.

“For organizations with a security mission, sUAS, particularly if equipped with infrared or thermal imaging cameras, can be useful in several roles”

The small size and more quiet nature of sUAS make them a good choice for surveillance activities where large aviation assets would easily be detected. If equipped with infrared or thermal capabilities, they provide a day or nighttime capability to conduct surveillance.

sUAS would also be useful in situations such as searching for a lost child or tracking an escaped prisoner.  They could be deployed from a patrol vehicle and quickly cover a large swath of terrain that would take a ground team a lot of time to effectively sweep.

In active assailant attacks, sUAS can assist in quickly locating the suspect(s). In large facilities, complexes or open areas, gunfire frequently reverberates off buildings and terrain creating a perception the attack is occurring in multiple locations. This can impact the response of police officers as they try to move quickly to the threat but are not sure where assailant(s) are located. Large buildings are a particular challenge in that they can take a lot of time and personnel in order to clear them. A sUAS can be used to sweep hallways to help locate and track potential assailants. Even if the attacker manages to “take out” a sUAS, it helps to further pinpoint the location of the assailant.

For organizations with a security mission, sUAS, particularly if equipped with infrared or thermal imaging cameras, can be useful in several roles. They are perfect for large installations or complexes where they can patrol perimeters and large open areas such as ranges and training areas.  They can be more effective in covering large areas which would be time consuming for foot or vehicle patrols.  If there are intruders or unauthorized personnel, a sUAS can covertly monitor and track them until the arrival of responding security officers.

Security officers frequently find themselves performing facility inspections or security checks.  “Rattling the doorknobs” and checking the exterior and/or interior of a facility provides a limited view of areas where intruders can hide or breech a facility. A sUAS can augment those security patrols, providing a 360 degree view. They can now see the rooftop and other areas of the facility that they cannot normally see from a foot or vehicle patrol.

As with any technology, there are challenges and risks associated with utilizing drones for law enforcement and security.

One of the first areas for concern is protecting the data that is collected by sUAS. Like any device networked in the “Internet of Things” (IoT), they can be hacked.  From foreign intelligence services to criminal enterprises, information collected by sUAS will prove to be valuable. This is especially true for public and private sector organization protecting critical assets or conducting sensitive operations. For example, there have been concerns that drones produced by D.J.I. maybe sending data to China.  As a result, many federal agencies have put restrictions in place prohibiting or limiting the procurement of

D.J.I. drones. Information security needs to be a primary consideration up front, prior to implementing a sUAS program.

Closely related to protecting the data, is data storage and retention.  This is a concern particularly for law enforcement agencies. Much like the use of body-worn cameras, storage requirements are a consideration. Obviously, overall sUAS usage will drive storage requirements. Additionally, data retention policies will need to put into place to identify how long data is retained and when data can be released. Agency legal council will be key to ensure compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws.

Another issue is the limited flight time for sUAS. Most commercially available drones have an average flight time from 20 to 30 minutes. Batteries determine a drone’s flight time.  Batteries are heavy and take a long time to charge. As battery technology improves, they will continue to get lighter and the time to charge them will get shorter.

A final challenge in establishing a sUAS program is training and maintaining qualified pilots. First, you must meet FAA training and certification requirements. More importantly, developing accomplished sUAS pilots takes time and lots of practice. Many public and private sector security organizations experience a large turnover in qualified personnel. For example in my own organization, I am lucky to have a Security Forces member in a duty position for two years, usually it is less. Drivers for this turnover include permanent changes of assignment (moved to another base), change in duty position for career progression, promotion, discharge or separation from the Air Force, or retirement. It creates a continuing cycle of selection and training of new personnel, along with the associated expense that occurs.

The use of sUAS provides a great opportunity for public and private sector organizations to enhance their law enforcement and security operations. Their use is not without risks and challenges. The key to implementing a successful sUAS program is conducting a thorough assessment of your agency’s needs. Be sure it will be an asset to your operations and you are not chasing the latest “shiny object.” Thoroughly research and understand the requirements and costs to establish a program. Finally, understand the limitations of the use of sUAS. They are not the “end all, be all,” but they can be a valuable tool in your organization’s toolkit to enhance your law enforcement or security operations.

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