May 08, 2017      

Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are adding police drones to their operational toolboxes. They prefer the term unmanned aerial systems because of negative public perceptions of the word “drone.” Since the Federal Aviation Administration released its regulations last summer, first responders and law enforcement agencies have been clamoring to get their hands on these relatively inexpensive mobile robots.

The global UAS market will grow from $13.22 billion last year to $28.27 billion in 2022, predicts Markets and Markets.

Business Takeaways:

  • The market for unmanned aerial systems is growing, particularly for emergency-response and police drones.
  • Some activists and state lawmakers have expressed concerns about privacy and weaponized systems, but professional associations are trying to pre-empt criticism with self-regulation.
  • A variety of systems, including CyPhy Works’ tethered drones, show how UAS use will likely grow.

The FAA sets the ground rules

On August 29, 2016, the FAA’s regulations for routine, non-recreational use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) weighing less than 55 lb. went into effect. These rules apply to commercial enterprises and public agencies.

The rules require UASes to remain within visual line of sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls. In addition, unmanned autonomous vehicles cannot be flown over people not involved in their direct operation, nor can a UAS be operated at night. Aerial drones must have a maximum air speed of 100 mph and a maximum altitude of 400 feet.

The FAA requires any UAS operators to obtain a remote pilot certificate through an FAA-approved Knowledge Testing Center.

Law enforcement agencies can apply for a waiver to use UASes for night patrols. Only a small number of such waivers have been granted to police and sheriff’s departments so far.

“Part 107 waivers are handled on a case-by-case basis,” said an FAA spokesman. “The waiver application must outline how the operator intends to safely conduct the proposed operation, including any additional risk mitigation strategies they may use.”

Activists, states worry about police drones

The FAA regulations address only safety concerns. The ethical use of drones falls to the departments themselves or to state legislatures. Many activists are concerned that UAS surveillance might infringe on privacy rights and civil liberties. Another concern is the installation of weapons on police drones. Law enforcement authorities need to garner public support.

Although the Montgomery County Police Department doesn’t yet use drones, Lt. Eric Stancliff said there are many advantages to getting an aerial view of an operation. What is holding back potential adopters?

“Drones have a negative connotation due to the military, so our county exec was not really supportive of putting that out in the public for use by law enforcement,” he told Robotics Business Review.

The ban was recently lifted, however. Stancliff said he thinks his department will have access to unmanned systems in another year or so.

Pros try to get ahead of public concerns

The International Chiefs of Police Association has pre-emptively created its own set of UAS guidelines. The guidelines recommend heading off citizens’ privacy concerns by involving the community in any decision to use police drones.

The association also advises against putting weapons on drones. It has said that any images collected should be destroyed unless needed as evidence. If images are kept, the agency should make them available for public inspection (unless prohibited by law). Of course, these are only guidelines. Only state legislatures and the federal government can set hard and fast rules.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “32 states have enacted laws addressing UAS issues, and an additional five states have adopted resolutions.”

In 2015, North Dakota passed a House bill stating that no lethal weapons could be used with police drones. Rep. Rick Becker is now looking to amend that law to prohibit police from installing nonlethal weapons, such as tear gas and tasers, on UASes as well.

Since the Dallas Police Department used a UGV a year ago to deliver explosives that killed a suspected sniper, is it unrealistic to imagine law enforcement using drones to take down suspects?

Authorities put hobby drones to work

Despite the worries, many authorities don’t appear to be interested in armed drones right now. Typical use cases center around search and rescue, explosive ordnance detection, hazardous materials incidents, disaster response, fires caused by arson, and hostage rescue.

In such situations, inexpensive hobby drones are often sufficient. Many agencies are using drones that cost less than $5,000.

By contrast, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has recently acquired a UAS with a price tag of approximately $20,000.

Even the more expensive drones are still far cheaper than their helicopter cousins. Aside from the initial cost of a helicopter, the cost of deploying one can run around $1,000 per hour, making a drone more attractive.

A UAS can be more efficient than a helicopter. A relatively portable UAS can be removed from its case and ready to take flight in minutes.

PARC provides security

A major downside of using hobby drones is their battery life. Current batteries allow for flights of only 20 to 25 minutes. This short flying time restricts how drones can be used and eliminates them as tools for patrolling large areas, as well as some search-and-rescue or disaster-response operations. What is needed is a more reliable source of power.

Police drones such as CyPhy Works' PARC are becoming more popular.

CyPhy Works’ PARC system is being used for law enforcement applications.

CyPhy Works Inc. has been working with law enforcement agencies and first responders. The Danvers, Mass.-based company’s Persistent Aerial Reconnaissance and Communications (PARC) UAV operates on a tether.

Although the tether system has obvious limitations in terms of range, it also has significant advantages. First, because it is powered from the ground, PARC has flight times of days, not minutes.

Second, CyPhy Works’ UAV uses a high-definition camera to view an area more than 1.5 miles (2.5 km) away. It helped provide security monitoring at last month’s Boston Marathon.

With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department was looking for a way to monitor large crowds without actually flying a drone above them. Using the Tokyo Marathon as a test case, the department gave the PARC system a trial run. It was launched from a barge about a half kilometer away from the finish line and successfully streamed a live video feed of the finish line.

PARC was also used by the Colorado Department of Transportation to monitor and manage traffic during a concert at Falcon Stadium.

In the case of an accident or terrorist attack, authorities may receive many calls with conflicting information, said Perry Stoll, vice president of engineering and operations at CyPhy Works. In Colorado’s test case, the tethered UAS was able to monitor a wide area and direct law enforcement or fire and safety to the right spot.

More on Commercial, Police Drones:

Rescue, police drones demonstrate value

More high-tech solutions are coming out of GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Under the supervision of Vijay Kumar, researchers are working with aerial robots for remote autonomous exploration and mapping.

In the event of a disaster, such as an earthquake, these autonomous flying robots could enter a building and generate dense 3D maps of the entire structure before sending in first responders.

When the FAA regulations were announced, then-Secretary of Transportation Anthony Fox said that the rules were part of an effort to strike the right balance between safety and innovation. So far, the agency has been actively working with the UAS industry to ensure that happens.

It’s likely that even more law enforcement agencies will include drones and robotics in their operations under the Trump administration.

Editor’s note: RBR will be covering more around unmanned systems around this week’s AUVSI Xponential event in Dallas.