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The complete history of drones for police and law enforcement

Law enforcement officers detain a suspect while a drone hovers over their vehicle.

How drones have evolved to become essential tools for law enforcement and first responders

Although today they are a relatively common sight, drones were once rare and fantastical. Remote piloting an aircraft seemed like something out of science fiction. However, the history of drones might surprise you, beginning some 200 years ago with unmanned balloons.

Today, drones are both more common and more complex, playing host to cameras, GPS devices, infrared sensors, and more. A modern, human-operated drone can take pictures, perform search-and-rescue operations, and even serve as a first responder in areas too remote for land vehicles, and new applications are being developed every day.

From their beginnings as a search and rescue tool to the drones of today that can be deployed from almost anywhere, the history of drones in law enforcement is a journey through the evolution of both aeronautics and technology, and it begins in France over 200 years ago.

For more information, read Police drones: the complete guide.

The first drones

The history of drone technology is both older than you would expect and more bizarre. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, have been around since the late 18th Century, when the Montgolfier Brothers hoisted a variety of livestock aloft in unmanned balloons. UAVs were first used as a weapon of war in 1849 when the Austrian army lofted a fleet of unmanned balloons loaded with explosives over the city of Venice to punish its citizens for staging a revolt. Although neither of these events utilized what we would consider “drone” technology today, they presaged the coming of a modern trend: deploying unmanned aerial vehicles to do work humans couldn’t – or didn’t want to – do.

The history of what we might recognize as drones today began during World War I when airplanes guided by radio were used to attack zeppelins. Development of radio-controlled airplanes continued after the war, with better, faster, and, more importantly, smaller drones taking flight. Various experiments with drone technology were conducted throughout the intervening years, culminating in the development of small, fast, and easily controlled drones in the 1970s. Used mainly by the military throughout the end of the 20th Century, the first modern drones were the size of small aircraft and were deployed for reconnaissance missions, jamming enemy radar, as well as serving as decoys.

Advances in computerization, miniaturization, and the invention of GPS combined to make the modern drone – a small, lightweight, accurate, human-controlled aircraft – a reality in the 1990s. This wave of innovations culminated in the creation of drones like the Predator (which saw extensive use during the 1991 Gulf War) and would eventually lead to the creation of commercial drones used by police.

The history of drones in law enforcement

The first drone used by civilian law enforcement agencies was a custom-designed reconnaissance drone called the Spectra, designed by retired US Air Force medic Gene Robinson. Robinson’s drone was used unsuccessfully to locate a missing retired special education teacher named Margaret White, who disappeared along a stretch of highway in Hays County, Texas in 2005. White was eventually located by cadaver dogs, the victim of a fatal snakebite.

Although the initial drone search failed to locate White, further review of the drone photographs clearly revealed her body right where she was eventually found. The technology hadn’t failed; rather, it was the first time searchers had utilized aerial drone photography in a search and quite literally didn’t realize what they were seeing. The Spectra drone was used again that same year in the search for former beauty queen Tara Grinstead in Irwin County, Georgia, and has been used hundreds of times since.

The first law enforcement drones were either custom-made, like the Spectra, or repurposed military drones, like the Predator, which was used to apprehend an actual cattle rustler in North Dakota in 2011. Six of his neighbor’s cows wandered onto Rodney Brossart’s property, and after Brossart refused to return them, a SWAT team was called to apprehend him. Local law enforcement utilized a Predator drone on loan from the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol to ascertain the location of Brossart and his three sons, all of whom were armed. Brossart was then safely apprehended with the use of a TASER energy weapon.

Commercial production of drones began in the mid-2000s and reached a fever pitch in the mid-2010s with the release of the successful DJI Phantom, which utilized GPS and a GoPro brand action camera. Since then, law enforcement agencies have adopted drones of all kinds, from consumer-grade drones to enterprise-level drones created specifically for police agencies and first responders.

Vern Sallee, lead strategist for Axon’s end-to-end drone solution (Axon Air), helped create the first DFR program in the country at the Chula Vista Police Department, where he served as captain. Over two years, the agency ran over 6,000 DFR missions and dropped the average call response time to under 2.5 minutes. Chula Vista’s DFR program has continued to perform since Sallee left the department to join Axon. The DFR mission count now exceeds 12,000 — around 25% of which were resolved without the need to deploy ground units.

Drones used by police are currently deployed for a variety of law enforcement purposes. As modern drones have become smaller, better equipped, and able to stay aloft for longer periods, they have been adopted for use by more and more agencies. As of January 2023, it was estimated that over 5,000 public safety agencies across the country were employing drones.

Although still controversial due to ethical and privacy concerns, drones have positively influenced law enforcement by introducing new methods and enhancing the safety of officers on the ground. Through a variety of use cases, law enforcement officers are now able to acquire live video and other critical data quickly and remotely. Drones and their advanced capabilities have also enhanced multiple areas of policing through the use of high-resolution cameras and 3D imaging.

Search and rescue

As with the first law enforcement uses of drones, search and rescue (SAR) remains a mission focus for law enforcement drones. Able to reach remote areas quickly, drones are invaluable tools for missing person searches. Searchers are able to use drones to map remote areas with onboard cameras, pinpoint precise locations using GPS, and can even detect trapped or hidden persons using infrared cameras.

A prime example of the successful deployment of drones for SAR was in 2017 after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas. Law enforcement in Texas used drones equipped with high-resolution cameras to locate people stranded by floodwaters and transmit their locations to rescuers.

Another famous use of drones for SAR came in 2018 when they were used in Thailand to assist in the rescue of a youth soccer team and their coach who had become trapped in a cave during heavy flooding. The drones were used to locate possible cave entrances.

Incident investigations

The ability of drones to arrive onsite quickly makes them ideal for responding to traffic accidents. Law enforcement agencies across the country are employing drones to supply first responders with real-time visibility of the scene before their arrival. Once on the scene, they create 3D imagery of the accident scenes to determine the sequence of events leading to the accident. High-resolution images and 3D renderings provide investigators with an unmatched level of detail about a crime scene that they can revisit again and again using evidence management software like Axon Evidence.

Incident overwatch

A police helicopter hovering over a crime scene or a police chase is a common sight, but more and more departments are turning to drones to serve the same functions as police helicopters. Drones are both quieter than helicopters and less expensive, making them a go-to choice for operations from suspect chases to remote reconnaissance.

Situational awareness of large gatherings

Large events, public gatherings, and incidents of civil disobedience are other areas where drones can be invaluable. Able to hover quietly high above the ground, drones can safely monitor groups of people and traffic patterns to help law enforcement assess problem areas and direct officers to where they are most needed. Drones equipped with infrared can also be utilized to detect body heat in hard-to-reach locations, enhancing officers’ ability to monitor perimeters.

FAA drone regulations

Since 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulated drone use in the United States, requiring drone pilots to follow FAA regulations. The FAA’s regulations mainly dictate where drones cannot be flown, such as around airports. As of early 2023, the FAA reported it had registered over 871,000 drones and 307,000 certified Remote Pilots.

As the sheer volume of drones in the sky continues to increase, police drone operators will have to contend with civilian drones invading crime scenes and potentially hindering police drone use. While there have been no reports yet of drones substantially hindering police work, firefighters have been repeatedly in the crosshairs of the drone invasion.

In 2015, firefighters in New York State used their hoses to ground a drone that had invaded the scene of an active fire. Again, in 2017, firefighters in California’s wine country reported drone interference at the scene of an active wildfire, and at least one drone pilot was arrested.

The California Senate introduced a bill in 2015 that would allow law enforcement officers to shoot down drones interfering with their work, but that bill was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown. Meanwhile, in Utah, lawmakers successfully passed a similar measure. It remains to be seen if more jurisdictions will follow suit.

The future of drones in law enforcement

As drones become more technologically advanced and police departments become more adept at using them, it can be expected that the use cases for deploying drones will multiply. As with any new technology, having it in hand will encourage more active use, and it is expected that police departments will discover or invent new uses for drones.

Battery capacity is one major area where we can expect to see a dramatic improvement in the future. Drone use is currently limited by the amount of power a drone’s battery can hold. Once the battery drains, the drone must leave the field. Advanced batteries will hold a longer charge, allowing them to remain on-scene for longer and extending their usability.

Greater battery life will only compound the ability of ground-based airspace systems operating beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) to provide support and intelligence to personnel on the ground. Drones can go further and see more, making them a force multiplier for any team, but particularly those charged with protecting larger areas.

In addition, advances in artificial intelligence could lead to fully autonomous drones, removing the human pilot from the equation altogether. Autonomous drones could fly unattended over cities or crime scenes, even following suspects or officers through complex structures that might hinder a human pilot.

For information on how Axon Air can help you manage your drone fleet from anywhere, visit the Axon Air product page or reach out to one of our experts.

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