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 fly for only 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.
When responding to a call involving the suspicious or illegal use of UAS, follow your agency’s policies and enforce local ordinances. Take appropriate action based on the facts and circumstances of the incident and site area-specific laws and rules. Local ordinances that may apply include, but are not limited to, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, voyeurism and inciting violence.
The FAA has specific reporting requirements. Document and provide the following information to the FAA:
- Identity of operators and witnesses (name, contact information)
- Type of operation (hobby, commercial, public/government)
- Type of device(s) and registration information (number/certificate)
- Event location and incident details (date, time, place)
- Evidence collection (photos, video, device confiscation)
Find phone numbers and email addresses for reporting incidents to the FAA and an outline of the Basic Law Enforcement Response D.R.O.N.E on this free-to-download FAA Drone Reference Card.
See Law Enforcement Encounters with Suspicious UAS Operations in the November 2017 TechBeat.
Lessons Learned about UAS
Find out what law enforcement agencies have learned about standing up and maintain a UAS program. Use this checklist from the NIJ report Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program (pdf, 101 pages).