UAS for Public Safety header for mobile view

Start a UAS Unit

Start a UAS unit iconUnmanned aircraft systems have the potential to be a useful public safety tool. Law enforcement agencies that wish to stand up a program have several factors to consider when finalizing their decision. Here are some suggestions for addressing necessary internal agency actions, community engagement and implementation.

Illustration depicting uniformed officers attending a presentation
Actions Internal to the Agency

All members of the agency should be briefed on the technical capabilities and intended operational use of the UAS technology…

Illustration depicting people at a table
Community Engagement

It is important for the agency to engage the community early in the process of implementing UAS technologies… 

graphic respentation checlklist

The agency should consider taking these steps with respect to actual implementation of a UAS program…


Actions Internal to the Agency

All members of the agency should be briefed on the technical capabilities and intended operational use of the UAS technology. This creates understanding of a common message regarding UAS when interacting with the public. For example, “The UAS technology will only be used two ways, for training and at a defined incident perimeter, such as a fire or crime scene. There will be no ‘free’ flights without a specific and defined mission.”

It is essential that the agency identify the actual need for UAS technologies to support its public safety mission. It is important to remember the mantra, “The mission should drive the technology; the technology should not drive the mission.” Accordingly, an agency should:

  • Identify the specific missions for which the UAS technology will be used. If the agency cannot identify missions that are unique to UAS, the agency should reconsider initiating a UAS program.
  • Determine whether the specific UAS technology that best matches the agency’s intended use is commercially available. In making this determination, agencies can consult with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), NIJ’s Aviation Technology Program, the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA), the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and other agencies that are using UAS. The agency should also determine if there is another method for performing the mission, perhaps at a lower cost.
  • Analyze whether applicable federal, state and local laws, regulations and policies allow the agency’s intended use of UAS. Such analysis should include research regarding rules governing airspace or other geographical restrictions.
  • Assess or develop the parameters for sharing UAS technology with other agencies, conducting inter-agency operations or otherwise supporting other agencies via mutual aid requests. For example, the FAA has promulgated rules and regulations concerning the shared and support role of public aircraft operations.
  • Evaluate whether the agency can support the effort by reference to technology, funding, storage, maintenanc, and training considerations. What type of staff should conduct the UAS operation? Who will be responsible for UAS in the agency? If the agency has an aviation unit, will UAS operations fall within the scope of that unit’s responsibilities?

In developing privacy policies, it is essential for an agency’s leadership to fully understand the complex legal environment in which UAS operate. Agency officials should:

  • Understand how privacy and Fourth Amendment issues apply to the agency’s intended use of UAS. Model privacy policies and operational procedures are available to use as templates for the agency’s own policy and procedures, but must be individualized to the agency’s needs and the requirements of the jurisdiction. If the agency is federal or has received federal funding for its UAS program, check the February 2015 Presidential Memorandum to ensure that that agency’s policies are compliant.
  • Bear in mind that certain states and localities have imposed more stringent requirements on law enforcement’s use of UAS technology than those imposed by federal law.
  • Develop written and transparent policies to help alleviate community concerns about UAS technology, to the extent that law enforcement and public safety considerations permit. It is important that the agency’s legal advisors be integrated into the policy-development process, as well as the oversight and auditing of UAS operations.

Community Engagement

It is important for the agency to engage the community early in the process of implementing UAS technologies. The following steps to effective community engagement may prove helpful:

  • Consistent with the needs of law enforcement and public safety, invite the community to be involved in the exploratory process of selecting and implementing UAS technology, which helps to combat the perception of government secrecy and promote transparency.
  • Engage early. Community engagement is most effective at the beginning of the process of implementing a UAS program. With some members of the public suspicious of the government using new surveillance technologies, the more transparent the process, the higher the likelihood of a successful launch. For example, if the agency is considering employing UAS such as small quad-rotor helicopters (“quadcopters”), explaining the size, capabilities, and limitations of that particular unmanned aircraft may help citizens better understand the goals of the program and promote trust.
  • Create a permanent community advisory panel on the implementation of new technologies, such as UAS, drawing from a wide cross-section of the population. The size of the advisory group should be proportional to the size and population of an agency’s jurisdiction and should only include citizens of the jurisdiction. Jurisdictions should be careful not to appoint non-citizens to be members and be careful about permitting individuals who represent advocacy groups to be a part of this group. While inviting representatives from advocacy groups may help inform the panel, they should not be voting members to ensure that the views of the actual citizens are reflected. A properly assembled citizen advisory panel can gauge resistance and help allay community fears.
  • Establish an annual audit of the UAS program and, consistent with the needs of law enforcement and public safety, publicly disseminate the report.

Getting the honest message out requires taking the following actions:

  • Become knowledgeable about UAS technology and how it will be used. Implementation of the technology should correspond to a clearly defined mission, which should be articulated clearly to the community before a purchase decision.
  • Ensure the agency has the economic and technical aspects correct about the UAS technology. Agency officials will be expected to be familiar with facts such as costs, maintenance requirements and intended use.
  • Involve the agency’s Public Information Officer (PIO) in the engagement process. Once a decision is made to acquire and deploy UAS technology, hold media events to educate the public.
  • Invite media to training exercises so that the press has a better understanding of UAS technology and how it will be used.
  • Be prepared to listen to members of the community and their concerns, and make adjustments as necessary.


The agency should consider taking these steps with respect to actual implementation of a UAS program:

  • Begin a working relationship with the FAA for public aircraft operations. Use the Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) for public aircraft operation.
  • Identify the agency’s funding source for both the initial purchase and continued operation of UAS technology.
  • Perform due diligence before purchasing UAS technologies to ensure that vendors can support the technical claims they make regarding their unmanned aircraft and its sensors. Does a particular UAS really fly for 30 minutes? What does its warranty cover?
  • Determine if the agency’s aircraft, if necessary or required, has received the necessary certifications from the FAA.
  • Conduct recurring UAS training once the agency implements the UAS technology. This training should not only include actual flight operations and simulated missions, but also legal and policy training on UAS and aerial surveillance, including a discussion of privacy and constitutional issues, and updates on any new laws, regulations or other sources of applicable law that might affect the agency’s use of UAS.
  • Develop an assessment program to ensure that the UAS technology is meeting the promised capabilities.

The following steps are relevant to the agency’s management of the UAS operational team and UAS program:

  • Carefully select the staff of a UAS program based on their aviation knowledge and training (or willingness to get the necessary training). Staff of the UAS program should have a record of positive interaction with the community and the media. They also should have a demonstrated record in adhering to the agency’s rules and policies so that they will follow agency rules for the operation of UAS technologies. This will enhance the safety of UAS operations and decrease the agency’s risk of legal liability.
  • Understand that there are limitations to using UAS technologies, including restrictions in aviation law and other laws and regulations regarding the operation of manned and unmanned aircraft. For example, management should understand why a UAS operator may not be permitted to operate a UAS under poor weather conditions or near airports.
  • Determine whether the UAS technology is a cost-effective tool for the agency. Logs of flights, issues, costs and benefits should be kept so that an annual study of the efficacy of the program can be conducted. The results should be disseminated publicly in order to promote the transparency of the program.

  • Ensure that the agency’s insurance covers UAS and UAS operations. If not, the agency should investigate the availability of commercial insurance policies.
  • Be prepared to defend decisions that the agency makes regarding the purchase, implementation and operational use of UAS technology, both within the government and externally to the community that the agency serves. Having good policies and practices in place will make it easier for an agency to defend its actions.
  • Share and learn from best practices in UAS operations.
For more information on starting up a UAS operation see Chapter Three, Considerations for the Implementation of UAS Technologies, pages 10-13 of Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft System Program.