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3 things police need to know about unmanned aircraft systems

An unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, can provide an invaluable tool for law enforcement, but successful use requires understanding of the technology


In order for law enforcement to take advantage of the tremendous benefits that an unmanned aircraft system can offer, a clear understanding of the terminology, technology and documentation is required.

photo/Icarus Aerospace

Sponsored by Icarus Aerospace Inc.

By Victoria Mack for Police1 BrandFocus

Unmanned aircraft systems can provide police with critical information to boost situational awareness, help mitigate risk and improve response capabilities. In most cases, a UAS can access areas traditional helicopters and officers on foot can’t, providing a more nimble tool for surveillance, crime scene or traffic accident analysis, crowd monitoring and more.

But in order for law enforcement to take advantage of the tremendous benefits that an unmanned aircraft system can offer, a clear understanding of the terminology, technology and documentation is required. This article provides clarification of these three key areas to help LE agencies know what is needed to properly establish and execute a UAS program that meets FAA guidelines.

1. Unmanned Aircraft Systems vs. Drones

An unmanned aircraft system and a “drone” are different things. A UAS can be a valuable tool for law enforcement, but it’s critical that LEOs understand that a UAS is a tool and not a toy. And just because something says “pro” on it doesn’t make it professional.

Unfortunately, the terms “drone,” “UAV” and “UAS” are often used interchangeably. An unmanned aircraft system (aka unmanned aerial system) involves much more than just an aircraft and a controller. Although a UAS does include the drone/UAV, its value is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of the ground-based controller, the data link, the payloads (e.g., camera, sensor, defibrillator, water, airborne cell phone tower, etc.) and the system of communications connecting the aircraft to the user.

For law enforcement, this system should be a comprehensive set of tools designed specifically to assist the agency in efficiently performing its duties and mission.

2. Choosing Appropriate Technology for Policing

Buyer beware: The technology required for successful police use is much more advanced than the hobby devices commonly available through many retailers, so due diligence is a must. Many off-the-shelf aerial vehicles provide surveillance capabilities but are not durable or secure enough to serve the needs of LE users.

A police UAS should be a rugged, customized, encrypted tool designed to help LE agencies protect communities, says Joshua Brown, president and CEO of Icarus Aerospace, a company specializing in UAS solutions and integration.

“With the influx of cheaply made, inexpensive equipment, many have overlooked the safety and security provided by true technology versus hobby devices,” Brown said.

Although each system should be uniquely constructed to meet a particular agency’s needs, Brown recommends key features that should be present in every LE UAS. For example, secure real-time data transmission is a must – every system should include 128-bit encryption and be able to beam information to hospitals, fire departments or other agencies whose services are required.

3. Required Registration and Documentation

In addition to the right hardware, police agencies need properly licensed UAS operators who have knowledge and experience navigating Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the National Airspace System.

A true UAS must be registered with the FAA, and there are different types and levels of certification. A simple FAA Part 107 certification that applies to individual commercial pilots is insufficient for LE agencies, which require a Certificate of Authorization that covers the entire agency. A COA allows operations that require great detail and approval, such as night maneuvers and flights near large crowds.

The need to regulate this emerging technology has caught the notice of the federal government. In October 2017, President Donald Trump announced a new initiative that “pairs unmanned aircraft operators with state, local and tribal governments to safely expand cutting-edge unmanned aircraft operations.”


Each agency is an individual entity with unique policies, restrictions, requirements and usage needs. To build the perfect system for your agency, start by considering which activities the UAS will be used for. Among many other considerations are the airspace your agency will use, your staff training needs and whether you will need to fly at night.

Partnering with a vendor like Icarus Aerospace can help. Icarus provides police-ready UAS solutions, as well as specialized training and guidance. The company partners with LE agencies to apply its “Triple T” methodology – technology, tactics and training – to implement successful UAS programs.

“We don’t just teach people how to use the system. We integrate the UAS into the agency culture,” Brown said.

First, the agency’s needs are assessed and the technologies selected accordingly. Then the tactics of how the agency will use the UAS to save lives are integrated into the agency’s mission profiles, using scenario-based training in operations and safety. Training is led by Icarus’ experienced public safety UAS instructors, many of whom are military or LE veterans.

“Icarus employees have worn the uniform and taken the oath,” Brown said. “Everyone has a military or public service background, and staff includes former police officers, military instructors and firefighters. To us, this isn’t business – it’s personal.”

Situational awareness saves lives, and unmanned aircraft systems can be a critical tool to provide much-needed information. Considering your agency’s needs and intended uses of unmanned aircraft systems, as well as the technological and regulatory requirements for public safety UAS operations, will help you to establish and deploy a successful UAS program.