Unmanned aircraft systems—more commonly known as drones—have been used to capture aerial photography, monitor crops, deliver emergency medical supplies, support disaster response operations and inspect bridges and pipelines.
As commercial drone technology becomes more ubiquitous, law enforcement agencies across the nation are exploring how they can leverage drones for public safety.
This spring, the Stafford County Sheriff’s Office hopes to put its first drone in the sky.
At a meeting Tuesday, the Stafford Board of Supervisors authorized the Sheriff’s Office to pursue a Certificate of Authorization for a public agency from the Federal Aviation Administration. The COA will allow the Sheriff’s Office to use drones to support law enforcement operations.
“The purpose of UAS is to protect life and property,” Sheriff David Decatur said. “We plan to use UAS for a number of things including search and rescue; Amber, Senior and Blue Alerts; training programs; damage assessment; traffic assessment; crime scene documentation; and execution of search warrants.”
The Sheriff’s Office began exploring the potential risks and benefits of drones about a year ago. Lt. Benjamin Worcester, Assistant Division Commander of Field Operations, said the drone program will be ready to go as soon as they receive the COA.
The COA application process takes approximately 90 days, and requires a letter from the county attorney declaring the Sheriff’s Office a public entity. Under the COA, the Sheriff’s Office can self-certify pilots and conduct training. Worcester said they are already putting a drone team together and have personnel ready for training.
Training will include a 40-hour course consisting of both classroom and hands-on training. They plan to begin training the team immediately.
Before applying for a COA, the FAA also requires that the public agency own or lease a drone. The Sheriff’s Office has already acquired a DJI drone, which they chose because of its compatibility with FLIR thermal imaging technology.
The Sheriff Office’s goal is to obtain 2–3 drones. One would be used for training and the other two would be operational. Worcester explained that the battery life on drones is typically short-lived, but they can overcome this obstacle by having two drones. When one drone’s battery runs out, the other drone can pick up where it left off.
Multiple drones are useful for search and rescue. Decatur explained that time is of the essence when searching for missing people. Drones can cover vast swaths of land in much less time than it takes ground teams to search the same area, and two drones can cover an even greater area.
Decatur said locating missing people will be one of the primary goals of the drone program. The Sheriff’s Office has partnered with Project Lifesaver, which helps locate wandering persons with certain disabilities, such Alzheimer’s disease and Autism, through a tracking device on a bracelet.
“They sign up and get a bracelet with a transmitter,” Decatur said. “If they wander, there is a receiver we could attach to the drone to help us locate the missing person.”
Decatur noted that drones are also more cost-effective than helicopters. Although the Sheriff’s Office still plans to use these in certain situations, the need will be greatly reduced. They also plan to partner with other jurisdictions to make the drones available to them.
But the benefits of drones also come with risks. Use of drones for law enforcement is relatively uncharted territory, so the Sheriff’s Office is proceeding cautiously.
“Drone technology is not new—it has been around for years,” Worcester said. “But law enforcement doesn’t dive into something brand new. We wait for the technology to be vetted, so that we can deploy it in a responsible way.”
Privacy and civil liberties are the major concerns surrounding the rise in drone use by law enforcement, Decatur said.
“We know that drones can help save lives, but, at the same time, we are mindful of encroaching on the lives of the public,” Decatur said. “We understand their civil rights and liberties, and we want the public to understand and accept what we are trying to achieve.”
Once the program is up and running, the Sheriff’s Office plans to hold a demo that will be open to the public. Decatur aims to mitigate any privacy and civil liberties concerns the public may have by maintaining transparency in the roll out of the program.
“We want to be as transparent as we can be,” Decatur said. “The demo will give the public an opportunity to share their fears and concerns.”
Decatur said they are working on a policy for drone use, and will follow all laws and FAA regulations, including that drones can only be flown within the visual line-of-sight of the operator and during daylight-hours.
However, Worcester said that once they obtain the COA, the Sheriff’s Office plans to work on obtaining a waiver from the FAA to use drones at night.
Overall, the Sheriff’s Office views drones as a public safety tool that can enhance—not change—the way they conduct law enforcement activities, Worcester emphasized. He said drones will be integrated into their routine police work and will be subject to all of the usual policies and laws governing law enforcement operations.
“At the end of the day, drones are just another tool in the toolbox,” he said.