Unmanned Aviation

UAS are used at times by law enforcement agencies as cost-effective, efficient and potentially life-saving tools to support public safety efforts. The Department of Justice has issued agency-wide guidance on the domestic use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and NIJ is at the forefront of developing standards for use and management controls. Guidance includes respect for civil rights and liberties, protection of privacy, accountability, ongoing policy management and transparency. See Justice Department UAS Policy.

Read Law Enforcement Guidance Concerning Suspected Unauthorized UAS Operations.

  • As an overview, UAS offer rapid deployment of an aviation technology on the scene of an incident. An UAS typically refers to an unmanned aircraft weighing less than five pounds. These aircraft can be flown by preprogrammed flight plans or manual controllers. The UAS are typically equipped with either an EO (day) camera or infrared camera that wirelessly downlinks to a control station.
  • Within the UAS category, there are two general types, fixed wing or VTOL. An example of a fixed-wing UAS is an Aerovironment WASP III. An example of a VTOL is the AirRobot. The fixed-wing aircraft require more open space to launch and recover the aircraft. In addition, the fixed-wing aircraft can travel greater areas and are more appropriate for searching/patrolling an area than loitering over a specific target. The VTOL can be launched in a confined area and is best suited for loitering over a specific target.

    Fixed-wing UAS can be airborne for 30-45 minutes, whereas a VTOL can only fly for 10-20 minutes. Both types of aircraft have hot swap battery systems permitting rapid redeployment.
  • The ground control stations vary significantly between different brands of aircraft. Some aircraft use a hand controller, while others use a computer. Some aircraft use way point navigation, allowing the operator to enter a preprogrammed flight path. Other aircraft use GPS to maintain a position but require the pilot to put the aircraft in the desired geographic location. In other words, the pilot cannot simply tell the aircraft to fly to a predetermined location. Most UAS use GPS for navigation, position hold and lost link.

    Lost link is the process by which the unmanned aircraft loses communication with the ground station. When lost link occurs, the pilot is no longer controlling the aircraft in real-time. However, prior to the aircraft's launching, the pilot can establish lost link protocols. Lost link protocols may include returning to its departure point after two minutes and landing slowly descending at the point of lost link (permitting time to reestablish link) or completing a pre-determined flight path and then returning to a departure point.
  • The price range for most UAS is between $500 and $125,000. The price difference depends on the various options of the aircraft and sophistication of the ground station. The sensors on the aircraft are adequate to identify individuals by location, color of clothes and some biological features (skin and hair color). The cameras are not sufficient to identify faces, weapons, license plates or other fine detail.

  • Learning to fly a UAS varies greatly depending on the type of aircraft and the complexity of the ground station. Typically, learning to fly a UAS takes 2-5 days. To become proficient would take another 10-15 flight days.
  • An UAS is considered an aircraft by the FAA. Therefore, an UAS must be operated in compliance with all 14 CFR§91 regulations (“Rules of the Road”). Although an FAA-issued pilot certificate is not necessary, an adequate understanding of airspace, weather, aerodynamics, Part 91 regulations and more is necessary to safely operate an UAS. The FAA currently uses a Certificate of Authorization process to ensure an agency operating an UAS has adequate knowledge and that the intended airspace of operation is safe for UAS.

Manned Aviation

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice (NIJ), concluded the Law Enforcement Aviation Technology Program (LEATP), a 10-year project to identify and evaluate cost-effective alternatives to traditional aviation assets for use in surveillance and other law enforcement operations. NIJ, in cooperation with the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas and The Center for Rural Development (located in Somerset, Ky.) established LEATP in fall 2005 to evaluate the applicability, affordability and frequency of use of various aviation assets by smaller – predominately rural – law enforcement agencies across the United States. The program provided several small and rural agencies with examples of selected aircraft for use in day-to-day operations; in return, the agencies provided NIJ with data that informed the research and analysis.

The program first conducted an analysis of traditional aviation technology used by law enforcement across the United States. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a special report in 2007, Aviation Units in Large Law Enforcement Agencies (available at http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/aullea07.pdf). This report indicates that of agencies with 100 or more sworn personnel, only 201report having an aviation unit. According to the report, “the percent of agencies with aviation units varied depending upon agency type and size. Approximately 75% of the 89 agencies with 1,000 or more sworn officers had aviation units, compared to 6% of agencies with less than 250 sworn officers.” Given these numbers, it is easy to see that hardly any agencies with fewer than 100 sworn officers operate an aviation unit.

You can download the final program report of the NIJ Law Enforcement Aviation Technology Program here.

In High-Priority Criminal Justice Technology Needs (National Institute of Justice, 2010, available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/230391.pdf), NIJ recognized the need for “safer, more cost-effective aerial surveillance solutions to identify, locate and track illicit activities and to locate missing persons, particularly for application with small and rural agencies. Solutions must consider regulatory requirements.”

To help address this need, NIJ selected aircraft for evaluation based on acquisition costs, published operating costs and safety records. The objectives of the evaluation portion of LEAPT were to:

  • Research, test and evaluate aviation technologies, with an emphasis on cost-effective and safe equipment.
  • Develop minimum performance standards and best practices.
  • Disseminate findings and information to the field through demonstrations and via electronic and print media.
    In addition, LEAPT had the following focus areas:
  • Conduct operational evaluations and demonstrations of various aviation technologies for public safety officials.
  • Develop a best practice guide for aviation technology implementation in an operational setting.
  • Investigate and analyze emerging aviation technologies.
  • Work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on law enforcement guidelines for the safe and lawful use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
  • Work on quickly deployable, low-cost and safe-to-use aircraft camera systems.
  • Work on a rapidly deployable, low-cost and safe tethered aerostat (balloon) for use as an observation and communications platform.
  • Conduct outreach efforts to better educate law enforcement officers on issues such as federal restrictions on the use of UAS and safety issues related to public safety aviation technologies.
  • Develop baseline standards and a standards testing program.

Read about the Kenya Wildlife Service Aviation Technology Project, a joint NIJ/KWS research project.

National Institute of Justice
Mike O’Shea,
Senior Law Enforcement Program Manager
(202) 305-7954