Police Drones – Today’s Top Four Uses
Drones are rapidly becoming a trusted partner for law enforcement across the nation, the adoption rate is increasing at an exponential rate. The raw driving factors are a drastically lower cost, fast FAA approvals, significant increase in ease-of-use, and a public recognition of police drone benefits. In terms of cost, drones today priced at $15k rival or in some cases outperform drones costing $100k just months ago. On the other spectrum of cost, entry level systems costing under $1,300 today are loaded with features such as digital down-links, and high def 4K cameras, making them very suitable for a wide range of law enforcement needs.
In response to the growing use of police drones in all disciplines and understanding the genuine benefits to the community, the FAA has streamlined approval processes. After submitting a request for authorization, agencies today are experiencing approvals in less than two months. Aiding in getting the approvals, FAA staff welcomes law enforcement inquiries and prior approvals are publicly available which can be used as an easy road map for success.
On top of the driving factors are law enforcement's incredibly great ideas on how drones can be implemented, and today I’d like to focus on more than ideas, but how they are being used today.
Crime and Accident Scenes
Perhaps one the most popular LE drone applications is crime and accident scenes. A couple of years ago, the motivators of using drones for scenes was convenience and cost saving. The notion of pulling a compact drone from the trunk of car was attractive, versus having to wait and pay for a manned flight or dealing with a cumbersome ladder truck. Beyond the cost savings though, police drones have proven to have side benefits of allowing closer inspection of the scene, minimized disruption of the scene & neighborhood, and the ability to shoot at angles not possible with any other technology.
In the past year, the use of drones for crime and accident scenes has been taken to a whole new dimension…3 dimensions! With advent of 3D mapping software, drones can be used to fly scenes with the end result of producing one large, three-dimensional map. Via the software and the drone photos, the crime scene can be explored, viewed and measured from any angle with a 5mm accuracy. The most notable agency employing this combination of software and drones is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who has spearheaded scene coverage using PIX4D software.
Still today, the most popular means of gathering pre-raid intel is the slow-roll by the target location or flat-footing it through the neighborhood. However, both are laden with detection risk and drones are now being used as an excellent mission planning tool. Even with most inexpensive, off-the-shelf drones such as the DJI Phantom…at a hundred feet of altitude they are very difficult to audibly detect, much less so if the target is indoors. Additionally, off-the-shelf drones make an excellent concealment so that should the target see the drone…it will look like any other, perhaps even the same as their neighbors drone.
With just a couple of quick passes over the target location, most drones can literally take hundreds of high resolution photos from multiple angles. Custom, but yet affordable drones are available with an array of cameras so just a single pass of the location is required for a wealth of information. When the job is finished, the drone can also assume a role of over watch and provide command elements with live video of movement.
SAR and Fugitive Recovery
I place both SAR and fugitive recovery in the same category of use as the functions are similar, save of course the intentions of the target. In these areas of use, drones have proven extremely helpful and this is largely thanks to the precision flight capabilities of drones. Unlike manned flights, drones can be programmed via a common tablet or PC to fly overlapping search patterns and with a built-in GPS controlled auto-pilot, the drone remains completely steady along its paths covering every square-inch. Bolstering this precision are thermal IR cameras that make targets stick out like a sore thumb and high resolution color cameras that can be used to detect the more subtle of objects.
Tactical & Disaster
As with the previous use, there are similar command needs between tactical and disaster responses such as maximizing officer safety and situational awareness. In terms of officer safety, the benefits of drones are easily seen…you can put the drone in harm’s way versus an officer. That harm can be of course any number of threats, an active-shooter, a barricaded suspect, planted explosive device and even a chemical agent. No matter what the harm is, the drone can serve as an officer extension to probe the situation allowing for more information and smart tactics to be employed.
Whatever information the drone captures, it can be shared and done so securely. As an example, one of the latest drones…the DJI MATRICE 100, is capable of sharing the digitally secure video with up to five separate teams that can located up to 1.2 miles away. Video streamed is 1080p HD which allows it to be displayed on large command vehicles screens with vivid detail. From one of the five receiving locations, information or even the video itself can be relayed to entry teams and/or via an internet link to anywhere in the world.
It’s an exciting time to be in law enforcement with tools such as drones. Being a law enforcement veteran myself, I’m thrilled to be a part of ushering in drones and the benefits. I hope this article has been enlightening to you and please sound-off if I can be of further assistance.
Thanks for reading
About the author
Jake Lahmann is MAXSUR’s chief operations officer and has been directly involved in the surveillance and UAS industry for over twenty-five years.