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Police drones: The complete guide

Law enforcement officers move to apprehend a suspect while a drone accompanies them.

Everything you need to know about how drones are helping transform modern policing and keeping communities and officers safe

There are approximately 1,400 police departments in the United States using drones. That number is expected to skyrocket in the coming years as drones become more accessible and more capable.

From search and rescue to crime scene investigation, the use cases for police drones run the gamut of law enforcement missions. Departments using drones find new and more innovative uses for them every day. The reason is simple: Drones are a capable, efficient and cost-effective way to keep officers safe and save lives.

For those exploring the use of drones in their departments, this article explores their history, how they are currently being used, and the facts you need to know about police drones.

The history of police drones in law enforcement

Drones were first developed for use by the military, with some of the earliest being nothing more than airplanes with bolted-on radio controls. Computerization, miniaturization and technologies like GPS ushered in the era of the drone we know today.

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.

Law enforcement has also borrowed drones used for the military, such as in the case of Rodney Brossart in North Dakota. Brossart was wanted for cattle rustling in 2011 but had barricaded himself in his home along with his heavily armed sons. A local SWAT team was called in and borrowed a Predator drone from the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol.

Law enforcement ascertained Brossart’s precise location and armaments using the Predator. The SWAT team then apprehended him by safely using a TASER energy weapon.

Advances in technology in the mid-2010s contributed to an explosion of commercial drone offerings from companies like DJI, whose Phantom drone helped usher in the modern era of drones.

Although most drones operate similarly, police and enterprise drones tend to be more robust, with longer battery life. They are also able to deploy a variety of payloads, like cameras, thermal sensors, loudspeakers, spotlights or beacons.

To learn more about the history of police drones, read The Complete History of Drones for Police and Law Enforcement.

How police drones help keep communities safe

Policing is a complex job, and staffing shortages and rising violent crime rates are combining to make it a lot harder. Police drones help address these challenges by providing a scalable and effective solution to some of the more common situations police face.

Drone as First Responder

When responding to the scene of an accident or 911 call, the two resources in shortest supply are time and information. Drones as First Responder programs act as force multipliers for agencies, amplifying the amount of situational awareness while lowering the number of officers needed per call. Able to deploy quickly, arrive on-scene – often before officers – and able to relay information to dispatchers and officers en route, police drones are rapidly proving themselves invaluable.

Responding to 911 calls, a drone can help officers assess the scene before they arrive, providing invaluable intelligence about how and where to deploy. This helps officers clear scenes more quickly, which is especially important given the limited resources of most departments.

Search and rescue

Just as with the first police drone, search and rescue remains a core mission for modern police drones. Armed with cameras, thermal sensors and GPS, drones are able to arrive on-scene quickly, hover over a search location and provide high-quality photographs, video and coordinate information with searchers.

A thermal sensor can spot the heat from a body lying on the ground. A camera can search for clues at the scene of a disappearance. And a loudspeaker can relay information to someone trapped while they wait for help to arrive.

Police drones can also provide detailed information about conditions in search areas, allowing officers to plan ahead about where and how to most effectively deploy resources. And they do all of this more quickly and less expensively than helicopters or planes.

Accident and crime scene reconstruction

Time is often of the essence when responding to the scene of a crime, but analyzing crime scenes can be both labor and time intensive. Police drones can accelerate the examination of a crime scene and provide enhanced results.

Capable of capturing hundreds of photos from multiple angles in a single flight, drones can acquire evidence more quickly than conventional methods. This allows crime scene investigators to clear a scene more quickly and provide hard evidence including incident scene reconstructions for legal proceedings.

Charles Werner, founder of DRONERESPONDERS, explains that “Not only can drones accurately capture crash scenes, but they can also do so in a third of the time of traditional methods and create three-dimensional models that can be accessed later for review. Most important, the quicker process reduces the possibility of secondary accidents, which enhances safety for all involved.”

For more examples of how police drones are enhancing the role of policing and community outcomes, read How Police Use of Drones Keeps Communities Safe.

Police drone facts worth knowing

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) registers drones and publishes a list of guidelines for their use. According to FAA statistics, there are currently over 850,000 drones registered in the U.S. According to the FBI, there are only about 660,000 police officers in the entire country.

With that in mind, here are a few police drone facts that law enforcement professionals should know.

Drones can be used for large event overwatch

In February 2023, approximately 700,000 people were expected to attend the Phoenix Open, which has been described as “the biggest party in golf.” How do you keep 700,000 people safe and secure while also ensuring the safety of your security personnel?

The Phoenix Open turned to Axon for help monitoring the enormous crowd. Axon Air provided a no-cost solution utilizing state-of-the-art Security Operations Centers, drones and pilots.The balloons were then reinforced by a small number of traditional drones.

Over the course of the five-day event, the security team flew 150 missions. They detected and prevented a number of drone incursions and even caught several people attempting to jump the perimeter fence. The fence jumpers were illuminated by drones equipped with spotlights and withdrew as soon as they were spotted, demonstrating how drones can even be used to de-escalate incidents without the need for responding officers.

Drones can be used to breach and clear

Emeryville, CA, May of 2022. A suspect entered a hotel waving a firearm and threatening staff and guests. The Alameda Sheriff’s Department responded to the scene and, for a time, maintained a visual on the suspect. Then, suddenly, he disappeared.

Fearing he may be escalating the situation, officers deployed a drone to attempt to locate him. The drone entered the hotel and began the search. The suspect was found sleeping on a sofa in the lobby and was apprehended.

Madison, WI, that same year. Five armed teenage suspects fled the scene of an accident involving a stolen vehicle. Police discovered a firearm at the scene and pursued the teens. Witnesses observed the teens entering a movie theater. Madison SWAT deployed a drone to search the premises and discovered the teens hiding behind a movie screen. They were apprehended.

These incidents demonstrate how police are using traditional drones to aid in apprehending suspects in public spaces.

Autonomous drones are the future

Police drones are saving police officer lives by providing eyes and ears and helping remove officers from dangerous situations. The support they provide is a harbinger of what’s to come: 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.

Autonomous drone technology is still evolving but will utilize machine learning, AI and a technology called MAVLink to operate without human direction. They will perform many of the same tasks as traditional police drones, but autonomously.

As autonomous drones become more capable, they will be a common sight in the skies, responding to 911 calls and assisting officers on patrol. Without the need for a trained pilot, they will save money and time.

To learn more police drone facts, read 7 Police Drone Facts Worth Knowing.

How Axon can help

Drones are becoming a trusted solution for law enforcement agencies around the country, with more use cases being discovered every day. If you would like to know more about how Axon Air can help your department manage its drone fleet, set up a call with an Axon Air solutions expert today.

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