Police Aviation Drones

Police aviation has come a long way since flying vintage aircraft to support public safety operations. But police departments worldwide have harnessed or countered this new aerial robotic technology to provide a critical service for every community. So, what does it look like today? Patrick Ryan will "walk the beat" with you and highlight the many unique aspects of this new Police Aviation capability.

Patrick Ryan  |  11th April 2023
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    Patrick Ryan
    Patrick Ryan

    Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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    Police Drone


    Today, police departments and other public safety organizations around the globe are leveraging the latest in aerial robotic technology (drones) to support or enhance their public service duties at eye level. Over the last ten to fifteen years, this technology has found a professional home in many traditional Law Enforcement (LE) functional areas, e.g., patrolling, investigating, and other critical policing disciplines. 

    To know what precisely drone technology is doing in Police Aviation, let's look at what Police Aviation is, the capabilities drones bring to policing, some of the unique operations they conduct, and a look at the specific drone technology police officers use daily. 

    It stands to reason that Police Aviation is the use of aircraft in policing operations to bring "peace & order" to every neighborhood, from large law enforcement bureaus conducting investigations to small cities guarding public events. Specifically, police departments frequently use aircraft for traffic accidents, resolving violent incidents, and many more specialized tasks. Like manned aircraft, drones bring a "Force Multiplier" to the science & art of policing. 

    However, regardless of the type of aircraft or technology used, the primary role of Police Aviation organizations is to help or complement ground personnel or other public safety forces. By tradition, they currently employ helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to achieve their mission. With the introduction of aerial robotic technology, Police Aviation has grown tenfold in this area since the mid-2000s. As of today, it continues to be integrated daily into traditional law enforcement operations. Additionally, because this new robotic technology is spreading across the spectrum of humanity for good and bad purposes, Police Aviation and policing, in general, have taken on new roles & responsibilities to protect the public.


    Types of Police Drone Operations

    From an over-arching point of view, police drones mitigate issues of distance and time and provide the advantage of "holding the high ground." Police drones can cover spaces faster and over impassible areas. 

    Additionally, they enhance visual range, allowing officers to keep a safe distance from dangerous situations. Plus, they provide a unique "birds-eye" perspective of certain kinds of crime scenes, search missions or investigations. As well, visible police drones flying above are a significant deterrent force regarding people with nefarious intentions. 

    Traditional Policing Applications 

    From a traditional policing point of view, when it comes to specific missions or operations that Police Aviation drones conduct, it covers a wide array of duties, i.e., from "dull and routine - to - dirty and dangerous." Here are some of the primary traditional policing operations drones support today: 

    Traffic Accident Investigations – One of the standard duties police officers perform is traffic accident reconstruction. Early on in the introduction of drones in policing, many departments started to use drones for this purpose. With leading-edge sensors and cameras, officers can capture the specific details of a crash area and create 360' three-dimensional models for follow-up investigations and reports. Additionally, because of the speed and agility of small drones, the collection time is faster, which minimizes traffic congestion issues. 

    Routine Patrol Support – At the core of police duties, i.e., "patrolling the beat," drones are becoming part of the standard configuration of a police patrol vehicle. Besides radios, rooftop light bars, and first aid kits, drone kits are carried in the trunk of many patrol vehicles. In this configuration, drones are deployed quickly at critical incident scenes to provide "first on the scene" situational awareness. First-on-the-scene drone employment helps quickly assess the environment and identify subjects' locations, the presence of weapons, and other dangers. 

    Hostage Situations - Hostage situations are complex and dangerous situations. Drones are used effectively to assess and monitor the situation in real-time without putting officers in harm's way, i.e., positioning the drone so that it can see into a building or vehicle window to get information on the suspect's and hostage (s) location. This information provides police critical intelligence on the condition of individuals, where and when to enter, and other essential details.  

    Nontraditional Policing Applications 

    Besides traditional policing applications, other interesting applications are becoming increasingly relevant and essential in Police Aviation. Because aerial robotic technology is not only used by the "good guys" but also by the "bad guys" or individuals flying a drone recklessly, law enforcement organizations are actively finding ways to counter such activity. 

    Currently, law enforcement agencies globally are tasked with ensuring that heavily populated mega-events, air & sea ports, and prisons are guarded against unwanted drone activities. With this, law enforcement organizations are slowly researching and implementing new technologies and methods to stop such activity in the case of malicious drone attacks or smuggling efforts. 

    Because counter-drone technology is still in its infancy, many LE organizations are trying to determine the best solution for their needs. In the world of countering drones, there are three ways or solutions to doing this. They are: 

    • physically damaging the drone
    • deactivating the drone
    • taking control of the drone

    The type of technology that either damage, deactivate, or take control of a drone is: 

    Damaging or Destroying with 

    • High-Energy Lasers – A high-energy laser is a high-powered optical device that creates a very focused light beam (laser). The laser stops the drone by destroying the airframe or the electronics or sensors onboard the platform.
    • High Power Microwave (HPM) - High Power Microwave (HPM) devices produce an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) able to disrupt electronic components. The EMP impedes data links and disrupts or even destroys the electronic circuitry in drones (plus any other electronic device within range). 

    Deactivating 

    • Radio Frequency Jammers - A Radio Frequency (RF) jammer is a device that transmits much RF energy towards a drone, masking the controller signal. This results in either the drone landing uncontrolled or controlled.
    • Netting - Firing a net at a drone or otherwise bringing a net into contact with a drone which stops the rotor blades. There are three main types: Net cannon fired from the ground, net cannon fired from another drone or hanging net deployed from a "net drone." 

    Taking Control 

    • GPS Interference or Spoofing - Actively altering the GPS coordinates in real-time, the drone's position can be controlled by the spoofer. Once control is gained, the operator can direct the drone to a 'safe zone.'
    • Falconry – Funny but true, eagles have been trained to intercept and capture small types of drones. However, even though this can be a low-tech solution, it requires a lot of manpower for training (at least one year per bird) and to maintain. 

    As you can tell, all technological solutions have "pro's" but also have "cons." Because of the old aviation adage of "what goes up must come down" makes counter-drone operations risky for any LE organization and the general public.

    Types of Police Aviation Drone Technology 

    As mentioned before, Police Aviation drones perform many tasks and operations. Also, because technology is expanding at warp speed, many unique and innovative drone platforms and payloads are available to fulfill these missions. In other words, the list of options is endless. However, here is a breakdown of what Law Enforcement agencies around the globe are using or is available today: 

    Platforms 

    When it comes to the type of drone platforms used by Police Aviation operators, it can vary based on the type of work required. However, the primary types are quad-hexa-octocopters and VTOL fixed-wing aircraft. 

    Quadcopters / Hexacopters /Octocopters – The most frequently and heavily used drone in Police Aviation is quadcopter platforms. Within this class, the quadcopter is by far the mainstay. Following this are hexacopters and octocopters. Hexacopters and octocopters provide additional lift for more extensive and heavier payloads. Depending on the design, these types of copters come with different motor/blade configurations or are tethered or untethered, i.e., tethered means the Drone is connected to the ground by a cable and supplied by a ground electrical power source for extended flight time. 

    Even though there are many makes & models of quadcopters and octocopters, here's a short list of popular systems being used or marketed for Law Enforcement: 

    • DJI - MATRICE 200 Series Quadcopter
    • Tarot - X8 1000 Class Octocopter
    • ELISTSTAR – ORION 2 Tethered Quadcopter
    • Ascent AeroSystems - NX30 Coaxial Rotor Copter

    Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) – VTOL drones come in many designs, but the primary for LE are thrustvectoring fixed-wing aircraft. VTOL drones take off and land vertically without relying on a runway but continue their flight in a fixed-wing configuration. Larger Police agencies with a much larger jurisdiction, budget, and mission requirement use such platforms to operate large payloads for extended distances, e.g., remote search & rescue operations or coastal patrolling. 

    Like the copter drone brand sector, many VTOL platforms are available to the LE community. Some of the leading systems available are: 

    • Plymouth Rock Technologies - XV-H
    • AeroVironment - JUMP 20
    • Alti UAS – Transition • DeltaQuad - Pro #VIEW
     

    Specialized Systems & Equipment 

    Regarding the specialized systems & equipment used on Police Aviation drones, the community is adopting the same leading-edge capabilities as you would find on manned police aircraft plus more. The primary systems utilized (in a miniaturized form) are either sensors or special-purpose kits. 

    Sensors 

    Probably the primary purpose of police drones is the ability to "see." Therefore, having "eyes on target" in real-time or near-time evidence collection is critical to law enforcement efforts. Additionally, sensors are critical in navigating confined spaces, i.e., avoiding obstacles while flying in a building searching for a dangerous suspect, hazardous areas, and many more risky environments.

    The primary sensors used for both data collection (real and near-time) and collision avoidance are: 

    • Thermal infrared night vision – Imagary/Data Collection
    • LIDAR – Imagary/Data Collection & Collision Avoidance
    • Electrical Optical/Infra-Red (EO/IR) – Imagary/Data Collection
    • Ultrasonic Sensors (SONAR) – Collision Avoidance
    • Radar – Imagery/Data Collection & Collision Avoidance
    • And many more… 

    Unique Kit 

    With the current technological limitations of small drones, there are drawbacks (e.g., lifting power, endurance, etc.) to employing such capabilities. Nevertheless, with continuing investment and innovation into aerial robotic technology, these capabilities will be mitigated and grow in effectiveness and use. 

    Specialized core kit that many police organizations have adapted to their drone programs are: 

    • Loudspeakers 
    • Tear Gas Dispensers
    • Search Lights

    • Remotely Operated Release or Cable Kit, e.g., deliver a negotiating phone, keys, first aid kit, life buoy, or even ammunition.
    • Cell Phone Locator
    • And many more… 

    As you can see, Police Aviation is more than flying manned helicopters with a specially trained aircrew of police officers equipped with advanced surveillance and unique systems. It also consists of a police officer on the ground leveraging an ever-expanding world of aerial robotic technology. 

    Over the last decade and a half, drones have started supporting the many traditional functions of policing. But additionally, because of the good & bad of this technology, law enforcement organizations have found themselves having to counter it simultaneously. 

    So, the next time you see a police drone team flying an octocopter or VTOL drone at your next open-air public event or over a traffic accident, think of how the law enforcement community is leveraging the latest equipment to keep you and all of us safe.

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