Police UAV pilot: A career path less traveled by

The first step an interested officer might consider taking toward achieving the goal of becoming a LE UAV operator is simply by becoming being a hobbyist

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column on the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) for SWAT Operations. In that column, I referred to a Chief of Police who reportedly had said that he’d not yet used his recently-discovered UAVs “because there hasn’t been a need for them.”

I posed the question, “If your department had resources similar to those in Gadsden, what would you use them for?” and a couple of days later, came to begin to know Curtis Sprague, a retired SWAT Officer and former Federal Air Marshal who now serves as director of the aviation division for a company called Tactical Electronics. TE offer a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) system known as Remote Aerial Platform/Tactical Reconnaissance (RAPTR).

During the first few days of our burgeoning friendship, several follow-up column topics became plainly evident — the first of which is, “How does a patrol officer become a police UAV operator?”

The Pre-flight Checklist
The first step an interested officer might consider taking toward achieving the goal of becoming a LE UAV operator is simply by becoming being a hobbyist and enthusiast, educating yourself on the operation of these aircraft and getting to know what’s out there.

“First, inform thyself,” Sprague explained. “There is a lot of information to sift through on the subject of unmanned aircraft systems. Subjects range from types of UAS, how to fly, cost, FAA regulations, law enforcement applications, peripheral equipment, training... the list goes on.”

The best way to gain this information, Sprague said, is to get involved in hobby flying RC aircraft. Although this hobby “can be addictive and expensive,” it is the best way to quickly educate yourself in the UAV/UAS operations.

Far more than simply building and flying RC vehicles, Sprague advises the seriously-interested officer to join an AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) sanctioned RC club. Merely by being at the flying field with other club members, the hobbyist will be surrounded by experienced pilots who have a wealth of knowledge and insight into design and development of unmanned aircraft. There, the new hobbyist will be exposed to safety guidelines, aviation etiquette, and the FAA.

“There is not a flying field anywhere in this country where the FAA and current UAV regulation is not a topic of discussion and education. In this world, an aspiring UAS Operator will learn the pros and cons of basic fixed wing platforms as well as rotorcraft platforms. This is an important foundation needed before venturing into the world of advanced, autonomous systems,” Sprague said.

“Once an aspiring pilot has developed the skills necessary to pilot a vehicle, they can begin exploring the integration of on-board camera systems and video downlink hardware to install. With this development will come an understanding of vibration management, RF dynamics, and de-confliction of radio signals. Understand all this happens at a hobby level.” 

Only after achieving a firm foundation of hobby- or recreational-leve use, should an aspiring pilot be moving into the realm of industrial/professional use of UASs.

In fact, this is exactly how Sprague did it.

Senior Pilots Start with Zero Hours
“I’ve always been fascinated by helicopters. Even as a grown man with many hours in a helicopter, I will still stop what I am doing to look up into the sky and watch one fly over,”  Sprague said. “About seven years ago, I purchased an inexpensive radio controlled helicopter which began a new obsession — uh, hobby — for me.”

Sprague explained that because he had no training and no one who knew anything about these contraptions to help him out, he had to learn by trial and error—a potentially expensive education if you keep crashing expensive aircraft. So, he started “small.”

“I realized how little I knew upon opening the box on my first kit,” Sprague said. “I put the battery in the helicopter and turned it on. This was when I learned the lesson of how important it is to turn the radio on first — the radio tells the helicopter how fast to go. Without the radio in the loop, the helicopter goes all out. I nearly ruined Christmas by dismembering the Christmas tree while my children watched in horror as the helicopter violently attacked it.”

Sprague told me that about five years ago, he got divorced (one has to assume that the Christmas tree entangled with an RC helo was not central to that life-changing decision). One of the byproducts of the divorce was that Sprague could no longer afford his hobby.

“I decided to put cameras on one of my helicopters and offer my services as an aerial photographer in an attempt to fund my beloved hobby. The learning began anew. Putting cameras and video transmitters on a radio controlled device is a challenge, to say the least. Learning about RF and frequency de-confliction became a necessity, as did vibration management.”

Ultimately, Sprague would build a very stable helicopter capable of carrying DSLR and HD video equipment, complete with a video downlink to the camera operator on the ground. He was barely into this venture when an opportunity of a lifetime came along.

“Tactical Electronics and Military Supply had been manufacturing high-end wireless systems for law enforcement and military special operations teams for many years,” he said.

“The company decided it was time to put their talents in the air by developing an unmanned aircraft system. A partnership was developed with Leptron Industrial Robotic Helicopters, who had perfected the ideal helicopter UAV platform. It was reliable, sturdy and met the needs of Tactical Electronics to a tee. I was working as a Federal Air Marshal at the time and was persuaded to leave a career as a public servant and pursue my passion at a commercial level based on my tactical background and experience flying radio controlled helicopters.”

Establishing a UAV Operator Position
Had that turn in his career path not taken place, Sprague was very probably already on his way to becoming a police UAV pilot. Consequently, I wanted him to address some of the issues he’d foresee for officers who might one day hope to build out a proposal to take to the administration in favor of a PD UAV. What would be in that proposal?

“Establishing a UAS unit will be a sizeable chore," he said. “There are a lot of bases to cover, but the first thing the administration will need to know is the answer to the question, ‘What is in it for us to establish UAS capabilities?’ The answer to this question can be addressed on several fronts. First, is officer safety. Having a UAS asset gives officers the ability to see dangers in certain operations long before they have to be exposed to them, physically.”

For example, in the course of searching for a suspect in a large wooded area, the UAV can travel out in front of the search team and clear areas of hazard that remain unseen from the ground. Often, the use of thermal sensors can reveal the location of a suspect before officers are required to enter the perimeter of the operation, altogether.

Secondly, in the event the suspect is armed, UAV assets can get a close look and relay intelligence related to the suspect’s weapon.

“The use of full size aviation assets for this purpose is limited,” Sprague said, “Full-size helicopters cannot get very close without putting the crew — and the public — in danger. A small UAV such as the RAPTR from Tactical Electronics can hover at close range without putting anyone in undue danger.”

While we’re on the subject of full size aviation assets, we should address the issue of cost. This will be a primary interest of the command staff as well. While UAS assets may be perceived as expensive, when compared to the cost of its full-size counterpart, the costs are nominal.

A full-size helicopter can require an investment of around $1.2 million just to buy the vehicle — this doesn’t even include associated costs such as storage fees, ongoing maintenance, or crew training and salaries.

Unmanned aircraft like the electrically-powered RAPTR have no fuel costs associated with their operation. There are no hangar fees or flight crew salaries. Once the initial purchase of a system has been completed, there are very few other costs associated with operating a UAV.

A department may be looking at spending about $200K for a reliable unmanned aircraft system — including operator training and a year of maintenance — whereas the cost to operate a full-sized helicopter can range from $1,500 to $3,000 PER HOUR, depending on a host of factors such as the make/model of the craft, operating environment, and other variables.

One more thought on costs. A creative — and thorough — officer who aspires to be the department’s UAV operator must also be advised that there are grants available to fund the acquisition costs.

The Homeland Security Grant Program offers the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) grant which boasted $490,376,000.00 in funding for FY 2012. Other options for funding a department UAS program might be asset forfeiture funds, lease programs like the one offered by Tactical Electronics, or private donations.

Why Rotors Over Wings?
Like Sprague, I’ve loved helicopters since I was a very young man, and like him, I stop to observe a helicopter passing overhead. I’m so much of a geek that in many cases, I don’t even have to look in order to identify the model helicopter. The sound of the rotors and the power plant the Bell Jetrangers running tours above San Francisco is vastly different from that combo on the Coast Guard Aerospatiale Dauphin which flies regularly in the region.

Like Sprague, I have tried flying both fixed wing and rotor RC vehicles. Like Sprague, I advocate for the rotary-winged option for police despite the fact that many of them are more difficult to fly.

I say “many” because I think it is appropriate to mention here that RAPTR comes equipped with an autopilot that makes its operation extremely easy, even for novice pilots such as yours truly.  In fact, in coming months I intend to spend a day with Sprague and his crew as they teach me how to fly RAPTR. 

“It is so user-friendly and easy to operate it,” Sprague told me, “you’ll be soloing in an afternoon.”

The most obvious benefit of rotary winged UAVs is their ability to hover. This vertical capability enables the vehicle to hover and stare, loitering over a target. A fixed-wing asset achieves this mission by orbiting around the target.

Another benefit associated with VTOL platforms like the TE RAPTR is that it can travel to a target, land on an elevated surface like a rooftop, where the rotor system can then be powered off. The camera continues to gather information while flight batteries are conserved. This “perch and stare” capability can be useful in most tactical operations.

Finally, systems such as RAPTR have the innate ability to deliver payloads with precision onto a specified target or geographic waypoint.

Payloads dropped from a fixed wing asset are more difficult to deliver with any level of precision and due to forward momentum will typically tumble unpredictably when they hit the ground. RAPTR can gently place sensors or other payloads in a specific location and in a specific orientation, then bug out back to the command post or move along to another waypoint for observation. Finally, any payload delivered by RAPTR can also be recovered by RAPTR.

“Try that with a fixed-wing platform,” Sprague concluded. 

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