Public Service

Unmanned Aircraft in Demand by Law Enforcement

By Ramon Lopez | July 1, 2008
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Miami and Houston police soon should be using small, unmanned aerial systems (UASs) to help fight crime and improve their situational awareness during the response to an emergency or disaster.

The Miami-Dade Police Dept. shortly plans to have a 14-lb, ducted-fan Honeywell Micro Air Vehicle equipped with electro-optical and infrared sensors patrolling above Miami’s streets. For 4-6 months, it will test the wingless, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft in tactical situations, such as special weapons and tactics (SWAT) scenarios.

The Houston Police Dept. will test a larger, fixed-wing unmanned aircraft, the Insitu, Inc. Insight. That catapult-launched UAS weighs 38-lb and has a 10-ft wingspan.


The FAA proposed the Florida and Texas UAS tests last year to gather data on UAS flight operations over populated areas and help it determine what steps must be taken to ensure that unmanned aircraft can be operated safely in civil airspace.

The Houston department’s interest in testing small unmanned aircraft stems from 2005’s Hurricane Rita. During the evacuation from that storm, citizens choked Houston’s highways, resulting in accidents that killed several people. Houston’s small fleet of police helicopters had been evacuated to San Antonio ahead of the storm and "we did not have the information needed as public safety officials to react to problems," Capt. Tom Runyan, commander of the Houston Police’s Helicopter Div., told a recent National Transportation Safety Board forum on UAS safety.

The Miami-Dade and Houston police are not alone in their desire to field aerial robocops. Taking their lead from the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies across the United States and elsewhere are showing a growing interest in using unmanned systems for crime fighting.

Unmanned aircraft are "a rapidly emerging technology that has exceptional appeal to law enforcement," the U.S. Justice Dept. said in a recent technical bulletin regarding law enforcement use of UASs. But it warned that the operation of such aircraft, whether by a federal, state or local law enforcement agency, is covered by FAA regulations.

The FAA requires that a UAS operator obtain a certificate of authorization from it to fly the aircraft in civil airspace. The FAA says it will consider issuing a certificate for such flights if the agency seeking permission can demonstrate that the operation is safe and that sufficient risk mitigations are in place. Any law enforcement agency operating a UAS is required to ensure the airworthiness of the aircraft. It also must ensure the aircraft is operated by an FAA certificated pilot with a current Class 2 medical certificate as well as an observer. While the observer does not have to be a pilot, he must have a Class 2 medical certification.

Sheriff’s offices in California, Maryland and North Carolina have experimented with small, hand-launched unmanned aircraft. North Little Rock, Ark., Charleston, S.C., Sacramento, Calif. and Las Vegas plan to buy UASs as well. Some early law enforcement unmanned experiments were grounded because the local agency failed to obtain the FAA’s permission first or violated terms of it.

Of the19,000 independent state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States, fewer than 300 have aviation units, according to Michael O’Shea, aviation technology program manager for the U.S. Justice Dept.’s National Institute of Justice, said. "Our guys are small, and they are poor." O’Shea said. "We say if you can afford a Bell 412, then get it. It’s an awesome asset. But if you don’t have the money, then buy a UAS. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to acquire and operate."

At the national level in the United States, the FBI is experimenting with a variety of pilotless aircraft and the U.S. Forest Service has purchased two SkySeer unmanned aircraft from Chang Industries to locate marijuana fields in the backwoods.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection service, whose Air and Marine Office operates the largest federal law enforcement air force in the world (with 290 aircraft) has been flying the 10,000-lb General Atomics Predator B over the southwest border with Mexico since 2006. It is deploying one in North Dakota to patrol the Canadian border. The unit envisions operations over the Gulf of Mexico and is developing the capability to load Predator Bs and support equipment on U.S. Coast Guard C-130s to support disaster-relief operations.

In 2006, one of the service’s Predator Bs crashed near Nogales, Ariz., within 300 ft of a house in a sparsely populated residential area. No one was injured. Investigators found the Predator’s inexperienced operator allowed the aircraft to run out of fuel.

The assistant customs and border protection commissioner in charge of the Air and Marine unit, Michael Kostelnik, said the Predator B "does things none of my manned aircraft can do. I can’t send a helicopter on an operation where it might face rocket-propelled grenade fire."

Russia’s Interior Ministry plans to have its first unmanned helicopter by year’s end to provide imagery of major incidents and help in special police operations. Australia is wrapping up a trial in which UASs kept watch for criminal activities, such as illegal fishing. Last year, police in Staffordshire, England used an unmanned helicopter to keep tabs on a crowd of 95,000 at a music festival.

"There is a huge market for fire departments and emergency management departments to employ this technology," said Chief Donald Shinnamon, director of public safety for Holly Hill, Fla. and an expert on law enforcement aircraft. "We all stand to benefit from local departments employing small UASs." But, he said, "regulation is lagging behind the technology," arguing that the FAA "declines to engage in a meaningful dialogue" with non-military UAS operators."

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