What are Police Drones?
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as unmanned aerial systems (UAS), that a user remotely controls. Drones can be equipped with various equipment such as daytime video recorders, low visibility surveillance video, live feed cameras, radar sensors, digital cameras, and radio equipment. In addition, you can mount infrared cameras, sound recorders, laser scanners, thermal imaging, and GPS equipment on a drone.
Eventually, weapon-ready police drones may include equipment like stun guns, automatic fire weapons, tasers, and grenades, depending on the situation. Still, no police drones have been equipped with such weapons.
Although law enforcement drones are still in the beginning stages, they are 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.
Additionally, police use drones 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 lifesavers when 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.
Regulatory and Legal Issues Regarding Police Drones
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 state legislature and the laws created by local jurisdictions, i.e. county and city governments.
This means that some police departments must get a warrant before using police drones or any type of unmanned aerial vehicle for surveillance purposes. In contrast, 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 introduced bills that 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 soon.
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 soon, so that is something to watch for. So far, fourteen states have passed laws that specifically restrict the usage of drones by law enforcement, usually requiring a warrant before they can be used.
Drones Used By Law Enforcement
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 quadrocopters, and 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, contaminates 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, law enforcement could locate the woman 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.
If you have any questions about Police Drones, please leave a comment below. Learn how to register a drone with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).