Drones are now in common use by airborne police forces, as they can provide significant benefits when used in support of search and rescue (SAR) missions. However, concerns exist as to whether drones are a secure technology and can be hacked, and barriers remain that are preventing drones from developing a solid critical mass. Mario Pierobon investigates
Making a difference
“Having flown police helicopters for many years, I often analysed each task we were given and thought about how the task would have been suited to drone technology. The answer is very simple: drones provide a very flexible platform, but for specific missions. Helicopters provide a very flexible platform, but are also flexible in terms of the mission,” said Oisin McGrath, Owner of Drone SAR.
Drones can make a positive impact on police operations by offering a very simple method of gathering aerial data. “It is a common misconception that drones will help with car chases and following suspects, but in reality, their real value will be in scenes of crime scene photography, road traffic accident analysis and for aerial recce,” McGrath noted. “These machines are not fully encrypted; hence they can be hacked – but not very easily. The cost of drones that have a bit of encryption are quite high, so police units will have to evaluate whether it is worth the expense. If the data being collected is of low value, then a number of cheaper drones will be very effective for a police unit.”
It is a common misconception that drones will help with car chases and following suspects, but in reality, their real value will be in scenes of crime photography, road traffic accident analysis and for aerial recce
“Many law enforcement agencies cannot afford the initial and ongoing upkeep costs associated with an air unit such as a helicopter or an aeroplane,” Kraig Troxell, Media Relations and Communications Manager at Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, said.
“Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) units – commonly referred to as drones – are cheaper to purchase and maintain, and are a force multiplier in SAR operations.” He noted that the security of a UAS unit will ‘depend on the software and the type of drone utilised’. “While it is possible for a UAS to be accessed by a third-party, the software associated with the drone can prevent this.”
In Australia, the Queensland Police Service (QPS) uses drones in a SAR capacity to assist in planning for land searches that occur on terrain that is difficult to access by normal means. “Drones assist officers in gaining situational awareness of the location and can reduce time spent searching clearings. The drones used by the QPS have a range of technological safeguards to ensure the drones are secure,” explained Rob Whittle, Chief Remote Pilot Acting Sergeant at QPS.
Cost and training
A key consideration that must be made by a police service thinking of implementing drones into police SAR is the cost of the drone and the necessary training that police officers must undergo before using said drones.
It should be noted that the cost of a drone is not directly proportional to its capability – cheaper drones can be equally as effective as very expensive machines, depending on what they are being used for.
Drones must be viewed as another ‘tool in the toolbox’ rather than a device that will solve all your problems
All police units using drones will need to take the time and incur the small – though necessary – expenses in order to become properly trained. And this could even happen before the drones are purchased, as it might help with gathering initial knowledge of the industry. A small amount of flight training is desirable, which must be followed up by continually building upon this experience. “Being in the public eye while using drones will require confident practise of procedures, accurate flying and a firm grasp of the regulation for the area,” said McGrath. “Drones can be very effective for a given mission. The day of drones replacing helicopters is, in my opinion, still pretty far away. Drones must be viewed as another ‘tool in the toolbox’ rather than a device that will solve all your problems.”
Whittle observed: “The cost of drones vary depending on the platform to be purchased that is fit for purpose. The cost of drones used by the QPS range from US$800 through to $45,000. All pilots must hold an RPA Pilots Licence issued through the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), undergo initial company flight checks, annual proficiency checks, and must adhere to flight recency requirements.” He also added that drones would likely be the preferred option compared to other aerial assets in certain situations, though they would ‘never take over from our manned aviation assets’.
According to Troxell, drones are as effective as people in a helicopter, but at a much lower cost. “Drones range from $1,000-$100,000+. Training varies, but in our agency, pilots learn of the legal aspects of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), basic training to obtain Part 107 licenses, applications for daylight operations waiver (flying at night), class B airspace waiver, and the registration process for the UAS,” he expounded.
Whittle points out that all Australian state and territory policing jurisdictions are either commencing using drones or are currently using them. Overall, however, there are more units that do not use drones, compared to those that do. “Police forces are bound heavily by regulation and will be especially affected by data protection regulation. The security of the captured data always causes delays in the introduction of drones into policing. Units should take the time to pick the tasks for which the drones will be useful without having a huge impact on privacy concerns and use them for those tasks initially,” said McGrath.
Additional current barriers to drones developing critical mass in police SAR operations concern the fact that due to safety issues, flying close to airports or no-fly zones is restricted. “Costs and privacy issues have been raised as barriers to drone adoption by other entities,” noted Troxell.
Mission to enable in the future
Looking at how drones can be made more useful, Troxell detailed that Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office is currently reviewing utilising UAS to capture aerial photographs at crash scenes. “This could enable deputies to capture the scene in a more efficient and effective manner, allowing deputies to clear the crash scene more quickly and helping alleviate traffic issues. Traffic and traffic congestion is a significant issue in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area,” he said.
the cost of a drone is not directly proportional to its capability
“Some drones do have the capacity to carry small items such as space blankets, emergency rations, radios, mobile phones and medications, and drop them safely to stranded people. Technological advances such as better battery life for extended flight operations, with smaller, more versatile drones would be useful in these situations,” commented Whittle.
Indeed, drones are already carrying supplies and dropping off rescue aids. “As the technology develops, this will increase their use, but the major developments will need to occur in the battery technology. Longer flight time and large-lift capacity will help bring these machines into our daily lives. Having software that can hone the machines by integrating them into already-existing protocols – although a lesser-known pitfall, this is very important for units to realise,” said McGrath. “Drones need to fit into the policing system and provide increased situational awareness for those who make the decisions (command and control). Transmission of drone data, including video, position, chatting to the pilots and using multiple drones will help increase the effectiveness of a drone system once it is set up.”
Drones assist officers in gaining situational awareness of the location and can reduce time spent searching clearings
Technological development will be of further help in terms of locating missing persons and alerting the appropriate rescue organisations. According to Troxell, drones are an evolving technology that will continue to advance.
“Drone technology has come ahead in leaps and bounds – just in the last three years – with thermal cameras and speakers becoming smaller and lighter, which allows them to be attached to drones. Future technological advancements mean that possibilities for the use of drones are potentially endless. The QPS will continue to utilise this technology in the SAR space and looks forward to expanding its capability with drones as technology advances,” remarked Whittle.
“The technology has evolved at a massive rate. DJI, with an 86-per-cent market share in the commercial drone sector, have had numerous iterations of their machines and continue to do so. Better gimbal, sensors and, of course, better software to drive the machines, have continued to drive the industry,” concluded McGrath.