Practical Considerations When Developing an Unmanned Aerial System
By Dave Ellis
FBINA #271

The purpose of this paper is to serve as an article submission to the FBI NAA magazine regarding considerations that should be made prior to the development of an unmanned aerial system (UAS) program.  I currently serve as the Western Region Director for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association, and helped create the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit (which operates three helicopters, and is in the process of acquiring two UAS). With the acquisition cost for UAS dropping to the levels where almost every agency can now operate an aerial asset, it is important that those agencies who are not familiar with airborne law enforcement, make wise choices prior to the implementation of a UAS program.    

Practical Considerations When Developing an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Program
Across the country, agencies are looking up to the sky to use cutting edge technology to assist in how they perform their functions.  As the acquisition cost of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) drops, agencies that previously could not afford traditional aviation assets like planes or helicopters are now able to enter the world of airborne law enforcement.

It is estimated that 347 governmental agencies have acquired UAS, with 167 agencies in 2016 alone acquiring them.  This was more than all previous years alone, and double the acquisitions in 2015 (Gettinger, 2017).

As hundreds of agencies consider adding these small aviation assets to their tool boxes, there are many items that need to be considered prior to acquisition and implementation.

Types of Unmanned Aerial System
One thing an agency will need to determine is what type of UAS it wants to operate, and the pros and cons that each system provides.  The vast majority of agencies operating UAS are utilizing vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft, which resembles a micro version of a helicopter.  The advantage of this style is it allows the aircraft to take off and land in smaller and more confined spaces, as opposed to a fixed wing UAS which requires a larger open space to land and take off.  The downside to a VTOL aircraft is they generally have a shorter amount of flight time being available before the aircraft needs to land and have a new battery installed.  Many of the VTOL UAS being operated by public safety agencies only have a maximum flight time of approximately twenty-five minutes.

UAS Policy Creation
Agencies establishing a UAS program will want to create a policy on its usage.  A strong UAS policy will help ensure the preservation of citizen’s privacy rights, help minimize the potential of costly aircraft accidents, and ensure that operations are being conducted within established best practices.  

There are multiple resources available for helping in the creation of a solid UAS policy.  The International Chiefs of Police (IACP) provides recommended guidelines for the use of UAS which offers guidance on community engagement, system requirements, operational procedures, and image retention (IACP, 2012).

In addition, the Airborne Public Safety Association (formerly known as the Airborne Law Enforcement Association) offers agencies the ability to become accredited, with an on-site assessment being conducted to ensure that the agency is operating its UAS in accordance with their required guidelines and best practices.

For agencies stepping foot into the aviation world for the first time, they will also want to meet with established members of the manned aviation sector, like police aviation units and news helicopter operators, in order to ensure safe flight operations when operating in the same vicinity. Manned and unmanned aircraft can fly in the same restricted airspace, as long as close coordination is conducted and an airspace deconfliction plan is developed and followed (Quistorf, 2015).

Types of Anticipated Approved Missions
Agencies considering purchasing a UAS will want to identify what types of missions it will be utilized for, and if any additional specialized equipment or training will be needed to conduct those types of operations.

Possible uses for a UAS include crime scene documentation and reconstruction, missing persons search, natural disaster damage assessments, critical infrastructure protection and security, and providing aerial situational awareness in tactical situations.

If an agency wishes to use the UAS for crime scene reconstruction, they will likely need to acquire a 3D mapping and reconstruction software from a company like Pix4D.  This software and training will be an additional cost to the original UAS purchase.

Agencies will also need to determine if they will need to equip their UAS with a thermal camera, like the ones manufactured by companies like FLIR.  Thermal imaging systems are valuable tools when conducing operations in poor lighting conditions, or when assisting on fire calls.  Thermal imagers can detect different temperatures, and displays that on a screen in varying shades of gray.  This allows operators to see people that might be lost or hiding, or show where hot spots are when fighting a fire.

Part 107 Versus Certificate of Authorization
Agencies considering purchasing a UAS will need to decide which method of obtaining Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) approval they want to utilize.  In the past, governmental agencies had to apply for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA to obtain flight approval.  This was often a long and complicated process, with many restrictions.  In 2016 the FAA began allowing operators to fly under a Part 107 license, which is a simpler application process.  The Airborne Public Safety Association recommends agencies starting a UAS program to operate under Part 107 for that reason.  Prospective agency pilots will need to successfully obtain their Remote Pilot Airman Certificate through the FAA prior to any flight operations.

Operating a UAS program can provide great benefits to a law enforcement agency, and the lower cost of acquisition is very appealing to agencies that ordinarily could not have afforded manned aviation assets.  If an agency decides to move forward with a UAS program, it will be critical that they do their due diligence and research available resources for critical issues like policy, training, operation, and equipment selection.

Gettinger, D. (2017, April). Public Safety Drones. Retrieved February 18, 2018, from

International Association of Chiefs of Police. (2012, August). Recommended Guidelines for the use of Unmanned Aircraft. Retrieved February 18, 2018, from 

Quistorf, B. (2015, March & April). Creating an Airspace Deconfliction Plan for Manned and Unmanned Aircraft. Airbeat Magazine, 20-22.