A growing number of law enforcement agencies are implementing Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or more commonly referred to as drones) programs and seeing the benefits they can provide for their department. UAS offer a dramatically cheaper and more readily deployable alternative and complement to helicopters for a variety of use cases, including tactical planning, first response, situational awareness, search and rescue, and scene reconstruction.
While there are many in-depth resources on the topic of starting a program, this guide is meant to be a quick reference for the most important considerations to help you get started.
#1 Understand your local regulations & community needs
Step 1 is to make sure you understand the local restrictions that your program needs to comply with. Many states and some local jurisdictions have passed legislation restricting the use of UAS by law enforcement. While these laws typically dictate when and how UAS can be deployed, many agencies have deployed successful drone programs within strict regulatory guidelines. You just need to be sure to understand the limits and design your program accordingly.
It’s also important to consider the political response you might encounter in your community. We’ve seen some agencies do extensive community outreach while others have done less and moved more quickly. At a minimum, you’ll want to have publicly-posted documents outlining how you plan to use the technology and the limits you’ll respect, along with the records you’ll be keeping and their accessibility to the public. While some communities may have privacy or other concerns about the use of UAS, we’ve seen multiple departments successfully garner community support by highlighting the positive impacts of their programs.
#2 Obtain FAA Compliance with Part 107 Licenses
We recommend your pilots obtain a Part 107 license from the FAA, which allows individuals to operate a drone weighing less than 55 pounds for any commercial use. Obtaining Part 107 licenses typically involves a couple of days of training and an in-person knowledge test administered by the FAA. There are many online resources to help, and we are working on putting together a training program from Axon as well. Note that the training and test are focused on knowledge, not actual flight, so it’s important to make sure your pilots also get plenty of hands-on experience with the aircrafts in a low-pressure training environment before deploying them in the field.
If you’re just getting started, it may be worth reaching out to officers in your department to ask if anyone already has a Part 107 license or prior drone experience. We’ve talked to multiple agencies that started a program by designating an existing drone enthusiast on their force as the program manager for the initiative.
A Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (or COA) from the FAA can give your agency more flexibility in how you operate your program (to fly at night, beyond visual line of sight, and other scenarios for example), but is generally not required in order to get started. It can, in fact, be easier to obtain a COA after you have a basic program up and running. You can learn more about obtaining a COA on the FAA website.
Understanding your local airspace
Finally, make sure to have an understanding of your local airspace. Some agencies are fortunate enough to operate in generally unrestricted airspace while others have airports, helipads, and other restricted areas to deal with. Thankfully, there are multiple third-party apps to help with flight authorizations and airspace management. You can find a list of FAA of approved LAANC UAS Service Suppliers on the FAA website.
#3 Procure the right hardware
If you’re just getting started, you’re undoubtedly wondering what equipment to procure. While we’re excited to see more companies developing law-enforcement specific models of UAS, DJI continues to be the dominant supplier in the space. We recommend the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise as a great way to get started. It’s a small, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive UAS that’s perfect for first response from a police vehicle. We also support and recommend the Matrice series of UAS from DJI. The Matrice UAS are much larger and more expensive than the Mavic but give significantly higher performance, including a large optical zoom lens and high resolution thermal imaging for high-stakes pre-planned missions.
Finally, don’t forget about accessories. You’re going to need extra batteries (flight time can be quite limited by battery life), extra propellers, controllers, a tablet (depending on the controller) and more. Axon Air has put together a convenient bundle of the most popular accessories needed by law enforcement agencies for both the Mavic 2 Enterprise and the Matrice UAS. Contact us or your sales rep directly for more information.
#4 Deliver comprehensive training
We’ve found that most agencies do well with a 3-to-5 day training program that includes the Part 107 license, a review of the piloting app you’ll be using, how to maintain and care for the hardware, and plenty of hands-on flight time to get pilots comfortable with operating UAS. An inexpensive solution can be to have one person on your team go through extensive training and become the lead for the program, who can then help bring other officers up to speed on the technology. We also recommend ongoing tactical training to keep pilots’ skills up and trained for new situations.
#5 Prepare your program for long-term success
Last but not least, you’ll need a plan to manage your program. You could go out and just buy a consumer drone and put it it in the field, but you’ll quickly run into limitations that will need a solution. Here are a few of the considerations:
Live Streaming is a high-value use case allowing your operations teams and tactical leaders to use the video intel to take action on a situation as it unfolds.
Evidence Management is a key concern to think through. You’ll be generating new video footage that will need to be uploaded, stored, and used for evidentiary proceedings or public records requests. You’ll need a solution to store and manage the chain of custody of this evidence.
Program Management also involves the administrative side of your program. How is your hardware being maintained? Are batteries being swapped out after reaching their manufacturer-recommended cycles? Are your pilot licenses kept up-to-date? How are you maintaining flight logs to justify the use of the technology in a per-incident basis? It doesn’t need to be a huge effort, but you will want to have some process in place to keep things running smoothly.
In summary, a drone program can be an inexpensive and powerful tactical tool for many law enforcement agencies. The Axon Air team has focused on the most critical parts of the program – from acquiring the right hardware to live streaming on Axon Aware and storing the data on Axon Evidence, and we’re working on building more of the end-to-end software tools that will make starting and running a law enforcement drone program as easy as possible. We’d love to talk to you about it!
DJI, Mavic, and Matrice are trademarks of SZ DJI Technology Co., Ltd. Axon, Axon Evidence, Axon Air, and Axon Aware are trademarks of Axon Enterprise, Inc., some of which are registered in the United States and other countries. © 2020 Axon Enterprise, Inc.