Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are remote controlled. Drones can be equipped with various pieces of equipment such as daytime video recorders, low visibility surveillance video, live feed cameras, radar sensors, digital cameras, radio equipment, infrared cameras, sound recorders, laser scanners, thermal imaging, and GPS equipment. Eventually, weapon-ready police drones may include equipment like stun guns, automatic fire weapons, tasers, and grenades depending on the situation but so far no police drones have been equipped with such weapons.
Although law enforcement drones are still in the beginning stages, they are already becoming increasingly important to police investigations. Many police drones are being used for search and rescue missions where a low flying aerial view is more powerful than using a “bird in the sky” or helicopter, or “boots on the ground”, often consisting of tens or even hundreds of officers patrolling an area on foot. Police drones are also being used to document crime scenes more accurately, helping to solve cases more quickly and helping to preserve more details that prosecutors can use to help convict criminals. Bomb squads can use police drones to access otherwise impossible to reach places. Police drones can easily become life savers in situations where people are lost or missing. such as a child getting lost (or kidnapped) at a large amusement park or hikers getting lost in the mountains.
The regulatory and legal issues surrounding the use of police drones are still being worked out. Currently, the federal government maintains full jurisdiction over the sky. Therefore, police departments and other law enforcement agencies must apply to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for permission to use police drones. The FAA in turn bases its decision on whether or not a particular police department is granted permission to use drones solely on public safety concerns. However, once a police department is granted permission to use drones, the various civil rights and privacy laws that could potentially come into play are controlled by each individual state legislature, as well as the laws created by local jurisdictions, i.e. county and city governments. This means that some police departments currently must get a warrant before they use police drones or any type of unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance purposes whereas others are not required to do so. However, even in jurisdictions where a warrant is not legally required, many police departments have created their own internal regulations.
It should be noted that members in both the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives have introduced bills that would require all police departments in all states, and across all local jurisdictions, to get a warrant to use police drones. Although these early drone bills died before a vote could be taken, similar bills are expected to be introduced in the near future. States legislatures are also grappling with whether or not to create laws that set the same standards for drone usage in every local jurisdiction within their state. For example, in California, the state assembly passed a bill in 2014 that would have required every police department in the entire state to get a search warrant every time they flew a drone except in emergency cases. However, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill because he felt the “emergency cases” were too narrowly defined in the bill. There is no doubt, however, that a new bill will be drafted in the near future so that is something to watch for. So far, a total of fourteen states have passed laws that specifically restrict the usage of drones by law enforcement, usually requiring a warrant before they can be used.
Police drones are already being used for reconnaissance missions to spy on criminals and collect the valuable information needed to make a bust. One of the most famous examples of this was the Jimmy Lee Dykes case where the FBI used a drone to peer into Dykes’ bunker through an open pipe. In this way, they were able to see the exact moment that negotiations started to break down. Further, it allowed them to more precisely and accurately kill Dyke without hurting the five year old boy he was holding hostage.
Currently, most drones stay airborne with quadricopters, helicopter style spinning blades. However, engineers are busy designing drones that will stay airborne and maneuver in a completely different way. Many are looking to model drones after animals like hummingbirds and insects. These types of designs are called “biomimetic designs” because they mimic nature. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel when Mother Nature has already perfected it. A drone that mimics an insect could potentially be very tiny and could maneuver unnoticed through any tiny open space, the same way insects get into your house or office.
In the future, some police departments hope to use police drones as an advanced tool to solve crimes and find criminals. For example, some advocate that drones would be very useful in finding discarded weapons. Likewise, some believe that criminals could be found by taking thousands of photographs and analyzing these with some sort of face recognition software. License plates and other identifying markers could be searched in essentially the same way. Some police departments also value drones for their ability to capture a crime scene at very high resolution and at multiple angles before anyone, including the investigators, contaminate the scene. Border crossing patrols are also enthusiastic about the potential for drone surveillance, especially if equipped with movement sensors.
If an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s accidentally wanders away from her care facility, she could endanger herself, and even other people, if she enters a busy street for example. With drone technology, this woman could be located much more quickly minimizing the potential for tragedy. If a man has climbed to the top of a building and is threatening to commit suicide by jumping, a police drone could be used to access the best way to get rescuers to the man without him noticing and his life could be saved.
While it is 100% certain that police drones can help save lives and solve crimes, many civil rights groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), do fear that drones could become an invasion of privacy. Legislators and police departments will certainly need to work on creating policies that reach a delicate balance between keeping the public safe and interfering too much in private lives. Before the public can become comfortable with drones, they may need to witness firsthand dramatic rescues using drones, both nationally and in their own communities.