What you need to know about the kind of drones police use, how they are used and with what equipment
Law enforcement officers need little reminding that policing is a dangerous job. According to the FBI, the number of officers killed in the line of duty is on the rise, year after year. Departments are constantly on the lookout for tools and techniques to reduce the dangers of the job and save officer lives. Enter the drone.
It’s estimated that at least 1,400 police departments in the United States are using drones. As drones become less expensive and more capable, that number is expected to skyrocket. Here are 7 police drone facts you should know.
For more information, read Police drones: the complete guide.
Police drones are similar to the drones you can buy off the shelf
Police use different types of drones, depending on their needs.
Several manufacturers that make drones for the civilian market also create drones specifically geared for law enforcement. With features like enhanced battery life and the ability to carry multiple payloads (see below), these companies’ police drones are typically more resilient and capable than the ones hobbyists can buy but operate almost identically.
The first drone explicitly used for law enforcement was the Spectra drone, developed by retired US Air Force medic Gene Robinson in 2005. Robinson developed the drone specifically to aid in search and rescue operations, a mission for which it has been deployed hundreds of times since its invention. Most police agencies use enterprise-grade drones that have been purpose built for their use cases. Typically quadcopters operated via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, these drones sport ruggedized hardware and offer extended flight times, thermal capabilities, high-resolution optics with long-range zoom, weather resistance and other features that make them both more useful for law enforcement and better able to stand up to hard use.
Advanced drones can also utilize complicated controllers, like those used by radio-controlled hobby aircraft. Solutions like Axon Air are also available to use for managing fleets of drones from all manufacturers.
Police drones can carry multiple payloads
Drones equipped with cameras are nothing new, and many police drones do, indeed, utilize cameras. From traffic control to monitoring crime scenes, camera-equipped drones are invaluable tools for assisting in law enforcement’s public safety mission.
Police drones are also able to equip different types of equipment, depending on their missions.
Thermal sensors detect infrared radiation and translate that information into a visible image. Also called “infrared sensors,” thermal sensors are used to detect the heat from bodies, vehicle engines or other sources. Equipped on a drone, thermal sensors can be effective tools for search and rescue operations or for maintaining the observation of suspects.
Cameras equipped with optical zoom allow officers to monitor subjects or locations from a safe distance without losing the ability to gather high-resolution images of even the smallest details.
Some drones can be equipped with loudspeakers, which can be used for delivering instructions to assist in emergency rescue efforts or for crowd control.
Drones outfitted with spotlights can be used for illuminating crime scenes or for help in identifying and following suspects.
A beacon is a flashing light or strobe affixed to a drone to help in locating it or making its presence known to other drone operators or aircraft pilots. This is especially useful in nighttime operations.
Drones are more cost-effective than helicopters
Helicopters have become a mainstay of police deployments in recent decades, but drones are rapidly proving themselves capable of taking over many of the same duties – and doing so for less.
A helicopter hovering overhead – even at a high altitude – makes an unmistakable sound, but a drone can be nearly silent. Suspects often report not being aware of the presence of a drone while being observed or chased by police.
In early 2023, Ohio State Highway Patrol troopers and Ottawa County deputies pursued a suspect who had fled the scene of an accident at night. Using a drone equipped with a thermal sensor, the officers were able to locate and track the suspect through thick woods, surrounding and apprehending him without incident – and without alerting him that he was being followed.
Drones are also far more cost-effective to purchase and operate than helicopters. Deploying a helicopter might cost hundreds of dollars per hour, but a drone can perform the same function for the cost of charging its batteries. And given that they run on electricity rather than aviation fuel, drones also present a more eco-friendly form of aerial support. Drones’ lower barrier to entry makes them a more accessible form of aerial support, so that even smaller agencies can have several ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
Search and rescue is where drones shine
The very first police drone was used to help search for a missing person, and since then search and rescue has remained one of the primary missions of police drones. In a 2018 survey of over 200 police officers, 83% of respondents said their drones are used primarily for search and rescue.
Search and rescue involves finding people who are lost, and people tend to get lost in remote, inaccessible areas. Getting personnel into those areas can be tricky and dangerous, but drones can provide aerial reconnaissance that can help searchers find efficient routes, help illuminate search areas and, using infrared, locate lost people at night.
Drones are also able to map locations that might not have been properly mapped before, providing invaluable location data to searchers, and, when equipped with a loudspeaker, can relay messages and instructions to those who are lost.
Drones can be used for large event and crowd monitoring
One of the biggest benefits of drones to police organizations is their ability to be deployed in ways that help keep officers safe. A remote-operated drone can provide eyes (and thermal images) where it might not be practical to deploy a police officer.
The Phoenix Open in February 2023 proved how invaluable drones can be for helping to manage large crowds. With 700,000 people expected to attend, organizers needed a security solution that would keep attendees and staff safe but had few resources to work with to make that happen. Axon Aid provided a no-cost solution utilizing state-of-the-art Security Operations Centers, drones and pilots.
Managing these assets using Axon Air, the security team flew over 150 missions over five days, detected unauthorized drone incursions, and caught several fence jumpers. The fence jumpers didn’t even need to be confronted by security officers. Once they recognized they had been identified by the drones, they surrendered and withdrew, illustrating how proper drone usage can swiftly de-escalate incidents.
Police drone facts that may surprise you
Drones can be used to de-escalate
Apprehending barricaded suspects is one of the most complicated and dangerous scenarios in policing. Drones can be deployed to aid in this mission in a variety of ways.
Police in Emeryville, CA used a drone to help apprehend a suspect who had entered a hotel lobby waving a shotgun in May of 2022. A standoff ensued, with the man threatening hotel staff and guests. After the man disappeared from police view, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department deployed a drone to breach the hotel and locate him. He was found asleep on a sofa and apprehended.
Also in 2022, police in Madison, WI used a drone to breach a movie theater where five teenage grand theft auto suspects were hiding. The teens had fled the scene of an accident involving a stolen vehicle. Police discovered a firearm at the scene and pursued the teens. Witnesses observed the teenagers entering a movie theater. Madison SWAT deployed the drone to search the premises and discovered the suspects hiding behind a movie screen. They were apprehended.
Axon recently acquired Sky-Hero, a leading Brussels-based innovator in tactical drones and ground vehicles primarily focused on indoor use cases. Sky-Hero drones can be equipped with light or noise-emitting devices that can be used to distract or confuse suspects, allowing for non-violent de-escalation of situations and the safe entry of officers.
Autonomous drones are the future
Drones are already helping save police officer lives by going where it would be dangerous for officers to go themselves. But even the best drones still require an officer or pilot to be at the controls – for now.
Autonomous drones remove the need for a human, performing many of the same tasks as person-piloted drones, but automatically. These drones detect obstacles, maneuver inside buildings and can follow officers into dangerous situations, providing aerial support.
Police in Ras Al-Khaimah, one of the United Arab Emirates, recently tested a “drone in a box” solution from DJI called the DJI Dock, which is now commercially available. The Dock can be installed in a central location allowing autonomous drones to deploy themselves when needed and dock themselves for recharging.
One autonomous drone, manufactured by Shield AI, accumulated tens of thousands of hours of flight experience in just three weeks using machine learning. Shield AI’s Nova drone can be used to search and clear structures and identify threats all without the need for a pilot.
Autonomous drone technology is still being developed but will utilize machine learning, A.I., and technology called Micro Air Vehicle Link, or MAVLink. MAVLink allows autonomous drones to pilot themselves, avoiding obstacles and collaborating on coverage angles while sending signals like video and infrared back to monitors on the ground.
By eliminating the pilot, autonomous drones will increase response time and save money. Officers will no longer be required to extensively train on the use of drones and their controllers. The drone will simply “be there.” That potential becomes even more compelling when combined with the concept of Drones as First Responders.
“Drones are a huge force multiplier for agencies. 90% of the time, they’ll reach a scene before an officer can,” says Chad Karlewicz, who serves as Commander of Special Operations at the Renton Police Department. “Drones can help us clear a lot of calls and reduce the number of officers needed per call. The future is bright for this technology in law enforcement.”
Drones are revolutionizing public safety as law enforcement agencies discover new use cases for them every day. If you’d like to find out more about how Axon Air can help your department serve its community in an efficient and accountable way, set up a call with an Axon Air professional today.
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