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How Will Law Enforcement Use UAS?

Eyes in the Sky

police drone

Unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly known as drones, have a real future in law enforcement. More accurately, they already have a real presence and an active role in policing the skies above U.S. territory.

The Chicago, Illinois-area Daily Herald newspaper reported in 2017 that nearly 350 law enforcement agencies in 43 U.S. states were using drones for what police term “situational awareness.” By 2019, the number had nearly tripled to 910 agencies according to Law Enforcement Technology. It’s probably a safe bet that the number of law enforcement agencies using UAS since 2019 has gone up and will continue to rise over the next decade.

The question, for Americans and others worldwide concerned about their privacy: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is ‘Yes.’ In other words, it is both. The key, according to some legal experts and privacy advocates, is regulation.

To Get Answers, Ask Questions

The New York Times recently reported on the Chula Vista, CA (a city just north of San Diego, CA) Police Department’s adoption and use of drones to aid their policing efforts. The City relates that it is one of an increasing number of participants in a program called Drone as First Responder. Using a drone, the Department reported – and recorded, on video – an incident of a man believed to have a gun and a bag of heroin as he attempted to escape law enforcement. Officers apprehended the suspect soon after the report. It was one of as many as 15 incidents per day the Department responds to with a drone. Chula Vista police have launched more than 4,000 drone flights in the past two years.

“Communities should ask hard questions about these programs. As the power and scope of this technology expands, so does the need for privacy protection,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Project on Speech, Privacy and Technology told The Times. “Drones can be used to investigate known crimes. But they are also sensors that can generate offenses.”

Day or Night, Indoors and Outside

Rahul Sidhu, an officer with the Redondo Beach P.D (near Los Angeles), explained to The Times that using drones helps the department limit officers’ exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still strictly limits the use of drones over its jurisdiction, but Redondo Beach obtained a waiver allowing them to fly up to 3 miles away from the launch site – beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) typically required.

While each drone costs the Department about US$35,000, the bigger expense is in the cost of training officers to operate drones and then operating them. A San Diego start-up, Shield AI, has begun addressing that hurdle by developing a drone that can even fly indoors without a pilot, day or night.

Shield AI has worked with police departments and developed a drone that can fly into buildings and inspect the length and breadth of the premises on its own, with no pilot, in the dark as well as in daylight. Other enterprises, such as Skydio and China-based DJI, are developing similar technologies.

But the drones are not without their own technological shortcomings. According to Lt. James Munro of the Clovis, CA P.D., “We were flying them four days a week until it got too hot,” Munro lamented. “Then, we had to ground them.”

Optimistically, Munro believes those hurdles will be overcome. “Drones are like iPhones. As soon as you get one, a new one arrives with new technology.”

Praemonitus, Praemunitus (Forewarned Is Forearmed)

The Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C-based think tank, has suggested several ways to make police use of drones more palatable to citizens who value their privacy but also respect the benefits this new technology can provide them from criminals. They recommend requiring police obtain a warrant before dispatching a drone. As of 2019, some 18 U.S. states already do this.

Accountability, the Institute says, is another tool government can use to ease concerns. By mandating annual reports on drone usage, citizens can gain insight into how law enforcement has been, and is, using drones. Preserving the data the drones collect for a reasonable length of time is another way to ensure accountability by law enforcement using UAS Brookings explains.

This Much is Clear

UAS are coming. They will, probably, sooner rather than later, be a part of our everyday lives. The sooner we recognize that, the sooner we will be prepared for what inevitably will be unforeseen consequences – in law enforcement and many other aspects of our lives.

Why? Because there are always unforeseen consequences where technological advances are involved. Just ask Einstein.


Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.