Despite potential, some police UAVs in a holding pattern

While unmanned aerial system technologies continue to be developed and deployed in places, local and federal regulations keep some departments grounded

At the recent Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) Annual Conference, it was clear to me that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) for law enforcement are here and will grow dramatically in the near future. 

One of the major sponsors was the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and the exhibit area featured numerous UAS companies — from small startups to the major aerospace corporations.

Further, ALEA sponsored an unmanned aerial systems course. This course — a first, as far as I know — was designed to provide law enforcement aviators with a review of UAS missions and applications, FAA regulations, legal and privacy issues, and management issues, as well as information on starting and operating a successful program. 

Tactical Possibilities
The value a UAS brings to public service missions is very evident. They can be deployed to search for perpetrators and missing persons. Tactically, a small UAS can do a lot of things to help ensure the safety of a police operation, SWAT or not. 

At the scene of a barricaded and possibly armed suspect, the operator could maneuver a small UAS to look into windows, gathering invaluable intelligence on the location of the suspect and potential hostages. 

During an active operation, a UAS operator could transmit real-time data to the SWAT team, providing potentially life-saving intelligence. There are even tiny UASs that could fly inside a building to gather information. 

In the not too distant future, a patrol officer responding to a multitude of assignments could launch a UAS from the trunk of their car and use it as another tool in the field. A UAS could fly into a potentially toxic environment and properly equipped, could collect and analyze air samples. 

One police chief attending ALEA lamented, “I love all the possibilities this technology can offer, but right now there are many unanswered questions, and limitations such as short operational time really hinder its capability.” 

Legislative Hurdles
As the Federal Aviation Administration and the airborne law enforcement industry wrestle with the introduction of these new tools for law enforcement, privacy groups and politicians are pushing an agenda that will limit or even prohibit such operations. Ben Gielow, government relations manager and legal counsel for AUVSI, found the UAS issue is more a problem of perception than reality. 

“When people hear the word ‘drone’ they picture a heavily armed, very large aircraft flying around their city. We have found when we demonstrate the small, lightweight systems likely to be used by law enforcement agencies, along with their capabilities, everyone seems to be more accepting of this technology,” said Gielow. 

At least 39 states have introduced legislation that will have a dramatic impact on utilizing a UAS. For example, Virginia passed a law putting a moratorium on any UAS until July 2015. Other states are including restrictions on surveillance and imposing strict guidelines. 

In Missouri, a bill was introduced (it did not pass) that would have banned warrantless surveillance via manned or unmanned aircraft and required journalists to seek permission from property owners before using unmanned aircraft. It also would have required private organizations or state agencies to seek permission for any airborne surveillance. 

Legal Precedent
Many issues will be clarified through the judicial process and future case law. Generally, the courts allow surveillance from an aircraft if the aircraft is flying where it is legally allowed to fly. 

For example, if the pilot of a helicopter flying in legal airspace at 1,000 feet sees marijuana plants, a law enforcement action on the property does not generally require a warrant. The courts consider this a case of the “plain view” exception. 

If this same aircraft descended to 100 feet and flew right over the open field, the courts might have a different view. 

Congress has mandated that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) create a plan to open up the United States National Airspace System to unmanned civil and commercial aircraft. 

The FAA plan will give direction and regulations to operators regarding policies, procedures and operational parameters. Many law enforcement agencies are waiting to see how this FAA mandate will impact a potential UAS operation before they commit the time, finances, and resources to start up and sustain a UAS. 

St. Louis Police Captain Kurt Frisz, who serves as the current ALEA president, offers some words of caution: “A lot of this legislation is a knee-jerk reaction to drone hysteria,” he said. 

“Let’s see what regulations are necessary before we make laws about something we can’t even do yet.” 

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