‘No traffic’ in the sky: Police drones see what officers can’t

By Jessica Klein

The couple on the fifth floor were at it again. After already hearing loud quarreling late into the night, Ocean Breeze Club Hotel staff picked up sounds of the guests once more threatening to kill each other. “The hotel [called] the guy and said, ‘Hey, what’s going on there?’” said Daytona Beach Police Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer. “And he says, ‘I’ve got a bomb and I’m going to blow her up and the whole hotel.’”

It was time to call in the drone. 

Sergeant Ehrenkaufer leads the Daytona Beach Police Department’s drone unit: six drones and seven pilots that give law enforcement a view from above, providing vital intelligence during hostage crises, missing person cases, and more. The drones can fly up to 40 miles per hour and are equipped with thermal (FLIR, or Forward Looking Infrared Radar) cameras and high zoom lenses. 

In the incident at the Ocean Breeze Club Hotel, drones made the difference. The thermal cameras revealed that the man taunting police and gesticulating wildly was, in fact, alone; the high zoom lenses showed that the bottom of the grenade had been drilled out. It was a harmless prop. 

 “Once we got this new information, we were able to de-escalate and come up with a different plan,” said Ehrenkaufer. Instead of using potentially lethal force, police offered the unarmed man a drink, then tasered and arrested him when he opened the door to grab it.  

Had Ehrenkaufer not caught these details picked up by the department’s drone, the seven-hour “hostage” situation could have ended much differently.

Police drones are taking off nationwide

Drones can get into places where law enforcement can’t go, or can’t go safely. They can surveil wide swaths of land in short periods of time, making them well-suited for search and rescue missions and instances where suspects run from the police. Drones equipped with FLIR can also locate warm bodies and pick up central heat sources in the midst of raging fires. Law enforcement units with drones also use them to capture footage that helps them 3D model accidents and map crime scenes.

According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, as of May 2018, at least 910 “state and local police, sheriff, fire and EMS, and public safety agencies” had acquired drones, in every state but Rhode Island. Police hold about two-thirds of those and the center estimates that the number of police agencies with drones has risen by about 82 percent since then.

Indeed, in a Spring 2019 survey by the drone safety nonprofit DroneResponders, nearly half of public safety agencies reported having an active drone program. More than a quarter said they were developing one.

 The Daytona Beach Police Department opened its drone unit around May 2018, said Ehrenkaufer, shortly after they found an Alzheimer’s patient dead in a backyard not far from his home. The police department had searched for the man—who had wandered from his care facility—using canine units and a helicopter for a week.  

“The thought was, if we had had the drones, it could have got over the backyards and to a lower level, where it could have seen the fence line where this gentleman was found,” said Ehrenkaufer. And so the drone unit was born.

 Now, the Daytona Beach Police Department has four small drones that cost “a couple grand” each, said Ehrenkaufer, and two larger drones with more advanced technology, like FLIR cameras, that each cost about $25,000. The fleet is worth $74,000 in total, paid for entirely with seized drug money. “So it cost the taxpayers nothing,” Ehrenkaufer said. All of its drones come from the Chinese company DJI, one of the biggest sellers in the industry.

More than a trip to Best Buy

Starting up a drone unit isn’t as simple as buying hardware. University of North Dakota Police Chief Eric Plummer would know. He oversees all operations in his department, including the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) unit, which started in 2012. Plummer acknowledges that that makes the university police very early adopters—due at least in part because of the school’s large aerospace college.

 “Law enforcement agencies don’t just go and buy a [UAS] system from Best Buy [because] they really need to think about the regulations and the rules that go with flying these types of systems,” said Plummer, who also sits on the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s aviation committee. 

The Federal Aviation Administration, which sets the rules for operating flying crafts in the U.S., needs to ensure drone operators working in public safety agencies understand public airspace rules, like where they can fly locally so as not to disturb other aircraft. The FAA’s Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, or COA, requires a “comprehensive operational and technical review.” The administration’s Part 107 Waiver is a two year waiver that allows proven drone operators to bypass certain airspace rules—like flying a drone at night or from a moving vehicle.

Beyond knowing the rules, there’s also the issue of knowing how to operate drones skillfully in the types of situations for which law enforcement and rescue agencies use them most.

In Daytona Beach, after passing the Part 107 test, police drone pilots embark on a three-day field training course. Much like a drivers education class, police pilots learn to back their drones up in a straight line and maneuver them in circles. Following their three-day kickoff, pilots continue training on the third Tuesday of every month, said Ehrenkaufer. Officers role-play hostage situations and missing person scenarios. “We’ll send out one of the officers into the woods and try to locate him with the drone, both daytime and nighttime,” Ehrenkaufer said. 

Allaying surveillance concerns

Privacy and surveillance concerns come up regularly in places where public agencies use drones. Agencies who consult with community members are more likely to avoid pushback from those who worry about air traffic or privacy violations. 

Plummer’s drone team worked with locals to determine that his department should post signs to notify citizens that they would be flying nearby. They did just that during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016 and 2017, when police drones provided intelligence to commanders on the ground—and documented the scene. Documenting a protest can clear up complaints made either against law enforcement or protesters, and drone footage offers an unbiased account.

Consulting the community “instills a little bit of confidence,” Plummer said.

 The Boulder Emergency Squad in Colorado, a volunteer rescue agency, also alerts the public of its drone use. The squad’s drones are used mainly in search and rescue missions and accident or crime scene photography and have completed about 60 missions since 2016. BES captain and UAS program director, Ryan Singer, tells locals, “We’ve put these [privacy] protections in place, and we’re abiding by the Fourth Amendment.” In some cases, the BES has had to obtain a warrant before flying one of its drones over someone’s property.

BES completes a number of risky missions, from rough terrain rescues to wildfire fighting, and drones have improved the group’s “safety factor,” said Singer. For example, instead of harnessing up BES volunteers and sending them down a hazardous cliff face while searching for a missing person, the team is able to send a drone. The same goes for fighting fires—drones with FLIR can locate the source of fires so firefighters don’t have to—SWAT operations. Drones can peek around corners to see if they’re clear before officers charge in. 

“No traffic” in the skies, for now

There are some challenges to incorporating new technologies into old procedures, but few police personnel working in drone-equipped departments could point to major obstacles. Singer said that it’s difficult to keep the batteries for all six drones charged. Plummer noted that wind speed is a new concern for the department. Overall, drones are a new element that must be covered in a local government’s total risk management program, said Thom Rickert, an emerging risks specialist at Trident Public Risk Solutions.

Police drones are protected by law. “It’s illegal to use any device that would interfere with the signal of a drone, so to have anything that could knock a drone down,” Rickert said. That includes laser pointers, used by protesters in Chile to down a police drone in November. Likewise, police can’t knock civilian drones out of the air, even if they’re doing something nefarious.

So far, civilians have used drones to drop drugs into prisons and surreptitiously record their neighbors. One man in Pennsylvania last summer even used a drone to drop a series of bombs in his ex-girlfriend’s backyard. In those cases, law enforcement should try and identify nefariously operated drones “using transponders,” Rickert said, and track down the pilot accordingly. 

As more drones take off in the public and private sector, particularly among home delivery operations like Amazon’s, Plummer thinks “there’s going to have to be more of a mapped out airspace.” But for now, it’s clear sailing. “There’s no stop signs to worry about, there’s no traffic,” said  Ehrenkaufer. “If we’re up in the air, we can be there within a matter of minutes.”

Photo by Roman Koval from Pexels

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