UAVs Destined for Local Law Enforcement? - ITS Tactical

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UAVs Destined for Local Law Enforcement?

By The ITS Crew

Government and select Law Enforcement agencies have quietly been using UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) technology for some time domestically, which raises the question as to whether it will soon become common to see UAVs being used in more LE roles.

We recently received a link to an interesting video, which shows the Houston Police Department testing a ScanEagle UAV (embedded below).


The largest issue currently, which you’ll hear talked about in the video below, is the use of airspace. The FAA has tightly restricted the airspace in the United States, and UAVs must operate within areas off-limits to civilian aircraft.

Government agencies must apply for a Certificate of Authorization through the FAA, which allows them to operate a UAV under certain conditions, such as altitude range. Nighttime use of UAVs presents another set of issues due to the visual recognition available during the day.

It’s hard to decipher from the video, but it appears that either the FAA was unaware of the Houston test, or chose to not discuss it with the local News there, our guess is the latter. Surely the Houston PD wouldn’t have taken it upon themselves to launch the Scan Eagle without authorization.

Line-of-Sight Communication vs. Satellite Communication

Smaller UAVs, like the ScanEagle we’ve mentioned, use line-of-sight communication to guide them. This means the transmitter antenna on the ground and the receiver antenna in the aircraft must be in visual contact with each other at all times.

This severely limits the range of these UAVs and brings up the question that many opponents of UAVs have been asking. What happens when communications fail? Will the UAV be programmed to return home, will it continue on its course, or will it head straight into a commercial aircraft?

Line of sight problems could be headed off if repeaters are used, but for this, the exact flight path of the UAV would need to be known ahead of time.

Larger UAVs such as the Predator and Reaper use a secure satellite-network to guide and control the aircraft and aren’t plagued by line-of-sight comms issues.

This is why the Border Patrol uses Predator, as the mountainous area around the border would play havoc with line-of-sight comms. Houston, where the video took place is relatively flat and an optimum area for line-of-sight.

LE Benefits

The benefits that the UAV can bring to Law Enforcement are are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. For starters they can be outfitted with multiple payloads from daytime to night time optics, and even thermal.

Thermal and these optics are nothing new and are currently being used on planes and helicopters today. What is different though, is that there no longer has to be any danger to the pilot or crew. Yes, even the pilots flying these UAVs on the ground have to take bathroom breaks, but it’s definitely not the same issue on the ground.

In the UAV military role, sorties are flown to gather real-time intelligence in urban areas and deliver that information back to the ground. Law Enforcement could also use this to gather intelligence on CONUS urban areas during stakeouts, narcotics operations, or hostage scenarios.

Search and Rescue operations are also an area where UAV usage would shine. Rather than deal with human fatigue in long S&R aerial operations, UAVs could be used to transmit live feed from the search area to help locate the missing.

People will still fight the use of UAVs, but it saves on wear and tear of the human element, and in the end is more cost efficient. UAVs have proven themselves over and over again in the battlefields of the War on Terror, and are doing most of the killing these days.

What are your thoughts on domestic use of UAVs?

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  • Josh

    Disclaimer – I have about as much law enforcement experience as a crossing guard – but I do have a few questions about this.

    I can see the benefits of using UAVs to compliment patrol, and maybe i’m missing the bigger picture – but isnt there going to be significant cost issues with this? Yes, i can see how the addition of more “eyes in the sky” can help lessen the toll on the existing officers. Adding UAV’s is going to require additional staff to maintain upkeep on the dones, which will require additional training. With many departments facing layoffs, budget cuts, etc – and when the economy fluctuates like it does, what will happen to these investments?

    Will the LE approach to UAV observation be the same as the military, where you have a dedicated individual sitting in front of a screen – monitoring what the UAV sees during its “patrol”? Or will the UAV’s only be used during special circumstances like a stake-out, search and rescue, etc? or both? Either way – More than likely you are looking at another officer to control/monitor the drone that you have to pay, as well.

    Obviously, manned patrol, that officer on the ground will never be replaced, but who knows what the future will bring and how those officers efforts will be complimented

    Dont get me wrong, i’m all for making any public safety efforts more efficient, easier, etc, and in a perfect world, this would be a splendid asset to have for search and rescue, gathering intel on a stake-out, etc. I hate to be that guy that poo-poos a new or innovative approach to something. But i’m not sold on the “cost effective” line.

    Thats my only complaint for now – later i will get to the inevitable public outcry of “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING ME URINATE!! WHERE IS MY PRIVACY”

    • will

      I’m not LE but i work with UAV’s and from what i know so far is that if you have a UAV then instead of haveing 20 ground patrols you only need 5 who stay on a main rout and then if someone is found doing something rong then there location is given to the ground guys and they can head there and would also help for things like peaple running from the cops because it is hard to run from an eye in the sky

  • We work closely with military, federal, state and local tactical units both small, large, US and foreign. UAV usage has been used for a few years now for federal and state level. DHS has just made some additional funds so that smaller SWAT and CERT units can utilize some of this technology.

    The surprising take from the news clip is that they are making it a privacy and illegal search concern. These UAVs do not have X-ray cameras! The same rules apply for a patrol officer, if they see it, they can act on it. If your urinating in public and a patrol officer sees you its the same, you go to jail! (trust me, you know how hard it is to find a bathroom in New Orleans during Mardi Gras!)

    We also work with several manufactures of unmanned equipment UGV and UAV most have intelligence software for the autopilot and only require human intervention during objective alerts. (i.e. UAV mission maybe to search a field for movement because LE is looking for a suspect in the area. The drone flies within a set geo-fence marked by GPS way points in a cross pattern until movement is found and then tracks and alerts C2.)

    Operators for the military are not flying 1 to 1 missions. They are monitoring several birds at one time each with a specific mission and flight plan. However these aren’t military UAVs by any means. Because metro airspace has obstacles like the news group’s chopper, line-of-sight operation must be maintained at all times. The FAA can restrict the airspace at certain altitudes for UAV maneuvers but from the news report it sounds like the UAV vendor failed to do that.

    Also a bit of a chuckle when the news group talked about a UAV crash. One of my guys here worked for a military UAV contractor and he tells me stories of UAV crashes all the time. Understand these are not F-22 planes that take out city blocks if they crash. Crashes 90% of the time are landing and take off. The UAVs a local agency would use is equivalent to a large RC plane. They don’t fall out of the sky or lose control most have an auto pilot system that will return to base if mechanical or electrical issues arise.

    But to address some of the questions from John, my experience and exposure is that the UAV usage for state and local agencies will be as needed like a chopper.

    Cost to operate and maintain a UAV is much less than a chopper and for some smaller local agencies this may be the only air support they have in CERT operations. A UAV pilot has much lower operational overhead than a helicopter pilot.

    I’m not saying that this system would ever or should ever replace chopper support but enhance current air support to larger local agencies and add air support to smaller local agencies.

    If I was a rural LE purchaser and could have federal dollars pay for a drone I can launch and program to fly for 12-24 hours over large areas with a thermal camera marking movement and searching for illegal crops, I wouldn’t think twice about it!

  • Failure Drill

    Another great thing UAV’s could do would help out on vehicle pursuits. If a UAV is above patrol cars could back off and allow the UAV to track the suspect reducing crashes related to the pursuits. Since many departments, mine included don’t allow vehicle pursuits, except for force-able felonies, this would be a great tool. Plus I’m getting old and these would be a great tool during foot pursuits also.
    And they really do not have to be “predator” type UAV’s . There are smaller Styrofoam versions in use with both a standard video camera and FLIR which really only need a laptop and some other gear to fly. Since I don’t see us getting hellfire missiles to take out speeders.
    I also know L.A. County Sheriffs dept. tested a smaller UAV a few years ago and got heat from the FAA for not clearing it with them.

  • Failure Drill

    And on the privacy issue DEA did catch heat for using thermal scopes to check for marijuana grow houses and I believe the courts ruled the use of thermal in those incidents was an invasion of privacy…It’s all how you write the report I guess.

  • steady

    While I completely appreciate the advantage that these Drones provide and would have loved to have had that advantage while working as a LEO, you have to remember that your rights are not effectively taken in large sweeping steps. They are taken in minuscule increments. Step by step. Little by little. And while you become comfortable with the level of invasion, the powers that be plan to tighten the screws.

    Now don’t get me wrong. Let’s go get the bad guys! But let’s not sacrifice our own liberties in the process.


  • Fred

    As a career airline pilot and recreational pilot I feel this will imperil the lives of those flying all aircraft from a Boeing 787 to a hang glider as well as those on the ground where the pieces will fall. How is collision avoidance going to work ? This is a recipe for disaster! As far as our civil liberties go, we need unmanned spies in the sky because? I don’t think any of us really want to live in a country with UAV’s and high resolution/ ehanced sensors peering down at its citizens. “Oh look …….Mr. Jones is putting a deck on the back of his house….. does he have a permit…. send over code enforcement.” Our government is full of good intentions gone bad. UAV’s in domestic airspace is one that starts with bad intentions! UAV’s may have a purpose and that is on a foreign battlefield were it is too dangerous to risk the life of a human, period!

  • Failure Drill, your right I’ve seen some video from smaller UAV, single manned planes that have pretty advanced flight systems and function with way points and C2 location return. The only draw back is a very low payload.

    I have a POC with Mountain and Valley Marijuana Investigation Team and they spend days on foot in the suck looking for fields. A UAV would help in these counter-narcotic teams within the CA-DOJ.

    And I was corrected by one of my guys…. UAVs fly, drones get shot down!

  • Will

    The embedded video you received is 3 years old very loaded news reporting. I have to write a paper on this controversy for my UAS course at The University of North Dakota. The FAA still doesn’t even have a regulatory clause defining what a UAV IS much less the legalities of their usage so it seems fairly clear to me that they are not being used to spy for the Houston police. Just to shed a little more info, Matt, “drone” is just a common usage term for UAV. The first UAV was a British RC target, the “DH.82B Queen Bee”, derived from the de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane trainer which is said to have lead to the term “drone”. This is the online textbook for my class. You may find it interesting

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  • I’d love to be able to have UAV capabilities at work. Even a small one that could be deployed from the cruiser would really be awesome.
    I think this will be a reality one day the way technology is going.
    Heck my son is getting a AirHog helicopter with a camera on it for Christmas.

  • David Liles

    I know I’m a little late to the party on this topic but for anyone following it or interested, there is an entire DIY group dedicated to amateur UAV / UAS activities. The systems featured range from modified hobby electric planes to complete custom gas engine aircraft… even quad-copters.

    For anyone interested in more about this you can find all you would want to know at

  • Doc

    Having worked on ISR (TF ODIN), I can say that domestic use of this technology for any reason scares the crap out of me. There is *no* reason to haev something that can loiter for XXXX hours on station just watching anything domestically.

  • Ray

    Just wanna say, there not DRONES, we despise that word….

  • Raven

    Two words: Border Patrol. Go South Texas! Don’t forget your border books. Plug, plug, plug.

  • Matthew Scofield

    As a US Army UAS instructor the thoughts of UAS in the civil sector is a good idea we are taught all basic FAA rules and regs I understand that some people’s concern but the possibilities for the use of UAS is limitless like SAR as well as homeland security.

  • Mumashik

    Just remember – everything law enforcement uses UAV’s for, criminals can too.
    If I ran a crack house, right now, I’d be figuring out how to have UAV’s providing surveillance on the cops.
    @Matt – there sure as heck are privacy and 4th. Amendment concerns. As you said – an officer can see a person urinated on a public street, and so can a UAV – but an officer CANNOT see a man urinating in his back yard if he has a privacy fence – but a UAV can.

  • Steve B.

    Loss of comms could possibly be a safety issue, I’ve seen a couple instances of UAVs (even ones programmed to head back home) that end up in a mountain side because noone is driving any more. Now imagine someones house being in the way.

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