Drones in Public Safety Agencies
Written by Michael Robbins   

IN THE PAST, DRONES WERE MAINLY flown as a popular side hobby for individuals and commercial users. When it came to public safety, most agencies used helicopters to carry out tasks requiring aerial assistance. However, using helicopters is extremely expensive and risky, and can cost upwards of $5,800 an hour. Meanwhile, the cost of drones has steadily decreased with further advancements in technology and materials, making their value-proposition ever clearer in comparison.

These tiny aircraft are becoming more than just a novelty. As many begin to recognize drones for their ability to inexpensively give public safety agencies unique aerial capabilities, drone use by public safety agencies has been on the rise.

A 2017 study conducted by the Center for Study of the Drone at Bard College found that at least 347 first-responder agencies own a minimum of one drone, with more purchases taking place in 2016 than any purchases from the previous years combined.

As an increasing number of public safety agencies begin to realize the various benefits drones provide, the upward trend in drone usage will no doubt continue to accelerate.

Public agency drone use across the United States. Image by Drone Universities.

Drones in Law Enforcement

Similar to how officer-worn body cameras changed police work, drones are revolutionizing many aspects of how police do their jobs.

According to a Police One survey, the most common use cases for drones are:

• Missing Persons

• Natural Disaster Response and Assessment

• SWAT Response

• Crime and Traffic Accident Scene Analysis

Law enforcement have also begun to use drones for mapping, specifically orthomosaic mapping. An orthomosaic map is a detailed, accurate photo representation of an area, created out of many photos that have been stitched together and geometrically corrected so that the resulting image is as accurate as a map. Drones can capture the raw data needed for these rich aerial views.

Law enforcement uses orthomosaic maps to:

• Map highly frequented locations in cities, like malls and schools

• Document crime scenes

• Map areas after disasters

In the event of an active shooter or any emergency that would require a tactical response, police officers can now deploy drones to gather real-time intelligence. With the help of drones and orthomosaic maps, law enforcement can have a better understand of the specific situation they’ll be facing when they arrive on the scene and prepare themselves accordingly.

Orthomosaic maps can also be used to review crime scenes after the fact, making them a great tool for crime and traffic accident scene analysis.

During natural disasters, such as floods, storms, and earthquakes, drones can help law enforcement understand the damage in real time. They can also be used to help locate missing or lost people by rapidly covering large search areas. Often, drones can cover search areas not accessible by foot. They can also deliver lifesaving medical supplies, like automated external defibrillators (AED), and other medical care.

In the case of a major traffic accident, drones can be used to help visualize the magnitude of the accident and its impact on the flow of traffic. This valuable real-time intelligence can be used to direct incoming emergency responders and redirect incoming traffic.

Drones can also be used to take law enforcement out of direct harm by remotely investigating dangerous threats like potential bombs and hazardous materials. Samples can be collected, evaluated, and dealt with appropriately, all from a safe distance.

A drone flies above a police car at a protest. Image by CapturePB.

Drones in Fire Fighting

As more firefighters recognize their value, fire-fighting drones will soon be standard equipment in every fire department. Firefighters are using drones to help fight wildfires by tracking how a fire is spreading and where it might go next. In the case of structure fires, drones can offer a unique aerial perspective, and provide key information about points of exit and entry that might not have been otherwise possible to gather.

During a fire, drones outfitted with specialized thermal cameras can be used to locate people who may be trapped. These same cameras can be used to monitor for smoldering hot spots that are invisible to the naked eye.

Fire-fighting drones will soon be standard equipment to help fire departments battle everything from structure fires to wildfires. By Konstantin Tronin.

Situational awareness is key to saving lives and preventing damage during a fire, and drones can provide firefighters with valuable information in the form of orthomosaic maps. While the fire is active, firefighters can use drones to deliver supplies and medical care.

After a fire, drones can also be used to survey the damage and collect the data required to build orthomosaic maps. These orthomosaic maps can serve as a record of the post-fire scene so that when the scene changes over time there is still a complete data set that can be used to investigate what might have caused the fire, and how it burned while it was still active.

Additionally, data collected by the drones during and before the fire event can be used in training materials for new firefighters. Understanding how a fire was fought, what was done right and what was done wrong, helps our first responders improve.

Real World Examples

We’ve come a long way since the first documented drone use by a public safety agency in the United States in 2005. It was then, in Ocilla, Georgia, where a drone was used to search for Tara Grinstead, a missing person. In 2005, examples of drone use were rare. Today there are many.

The following are just a few recent examples of drone use by public service agencies.

• Chula Vista, California

The Chula Vista Police Department was selected in June 2018 by the FAA as one of ten drone-testing sites in the U.S. that are part of the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, or IPP. The program was developed to help the FAA create regulations when it comes to low-flying drone use by companies and cities.

The program is running in partnership with Cape, a Bay Area company working with the police department on data management and drone telepresence. The Chula Vista program has already contributed to 20 arrests, launched more than 282 flights, and flown over 75 hours of total flight time without any incidents.

• Campbell, California

In Campbell, California, the SWAT team has access to some exciting drone technology, and a recent standoff with an armed man inside a Denny’s restaurant gave them the opportunity to test it in the field.

“During critical incidents, real-time intelligence is extremely important. At this recent event involving a barricaded subject with a gun, Impossible Aerospace provided a piece of intelligence that our agency previously has never had access to,” Campbell Police Captain Gary Berg said in a statement. “The use of the US-1 drone helped us optimize the safety of our officers and the community while providing valuable information to the command post through the live video feed. Fortunately, after almost 12 hours, the suspect was taken into custody safely. We are very appreciative of the assistance that Impossible Aerospace provided during this incident.”

Using the drone, the officers were able to identify how much tear gas was needed, and after successful deployment, the man gave himself up.

• Shreveport, Louisiana

Thermal imaging was used to locate a group of teenage runaways hiding in a wooded area in Bossier Parish, near Shreveport, Louisiana. The teenagers had run away from a local at-risk youth project and would have otherwise been difficult to find because of the ground search conditions.

A recently trained deputy acting as the drone operator came to the scene to provide assistance. The deputy quickly deployed the drone that was equipped with thermal imaging, and within one minute of launch, he had the teens located in the middle of the woods.

“Having these drones is a priority,” said Sheriff Julian Whittington. “When we have the ability to launch a drone and immediately locate people like we did with these teens hiding in the woods at night, that’s a success. Our next case might be finding a lost child, looking for an elderly person who has wandered off, or searching for an armed robbery suspect. We will be ready… and we will find you.”

• Elkton, Maryland

Drones were used by the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office in the Elkton, Maryland, area to locate almost $400,000 worth of stolen construction equipment. This was a major breakthrough in a joint investigation by CCSO and police in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania into a construction-equipment theft ring.

This was the first official drone mission for the CCSO after six officers received flight training and FAA licenses, and the drones used in this investigation were purchased using seized funds.

• New York City, New York

When a four-alarm fire broke out at a six-story building in the Bronx, FDNY deployed a tethered drone to relay live images of the blaze back down to the ground.

"The roof started to fail and we had a lot of great radio reports but that’s only verbal, so with the drone we had good visual pictures and it really helped us make decisions to put this fire out and keep our members safe," said FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Dan Donoghue.

• Toledo, Ohio

In another fire-related example, the Toledo Police were able to debut their drone above a large chemical fire. Due to potentially hazardous chemicals, the drone provided valuable information that would have otherwise been unavailable. It gave the firefighters a bird’s-eye perspective which allowed them to assess the fire, property and resultant damage.

“The unmanned drone allowed us to put that visual in place without putting any firefighters in danger,” department spokesman Pvt. Sterling Rahe said.

• Linn, Wisconsin

Police officers in the Town of Linn responded after an ice fisherman had gone missing. He was reported missing by his wife when she was unable to reach him for 12 hours. Using a drone with thermal imaging, Linn police were able to identify a faint heat signature in the water which was later able to be identified as the missing party and his fishing equipment.

• Grimsby, United Kingdom

When police officers responded to a car crash in the dead of night, they found an empty vehicle at the scene. After witnesses reported seeing a man walking away from the accident, they deployed a drone to scour the area, once again using thermal imaging.

Within just a few minutes the drone was able to locate the unconscious driver in a 6-foot-deep ditch more than 500 feet away.

Drones can be deployed to assist with accident reconstruction, search and rescue operations, and more. Image by superelaks.

Creating A Drone Program

If you recognize the value that drones provide, you may be interested in creating a drone program for your agency.


Selecting the correct drone for your agency requires research. If you are unsure which model or models are best for your organization, you may want to consult with a third-party expert like Drone Universities.

In public safety, the most popular drones are the DJI Phantom and DJI Inspire. Popular non-DJI models include Lockheed Martin’s Indago and the 3DR Solo. While some agencies own a single aircraft, it is not uncommon for an agency to own two or more different types of drones.

Popular options include specialized optical, zoom and thermal cameras.


While drones have become more affordable over time, acquisition cost is still a major barrier for many public agencies. Most public safety agencies acquire their drones through donations, grants, special funding or civil forfeiture.


Before you fly your newly acquired aircraft, you’ll need proper authorization. Authorization can come in two forms: either a Part 107 Certification or a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA).

If you choose to operate under FAA’s Part 107 rule, the drone pilot or pilots who will be conducting operations for your public agency will need to take the FAA’s Aeronautical Knowledge Test (also called the Part 107 test) and obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate, as well as comply with the other requirements listed in the Part 107 rule. Third-party drone experts can provide your organization with training and assist with the testing process.

On the other hand, obtaining a COA means submitting an application to the FAA and waiting to receive authorization for your department’s proposed UAV operations. After the application is submitted, the FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review. In some cases, provisions or limitations may be imposed as part of the approval to ensure the UA can operate safely with other airspace users. This can be a time-consuming process, and in most cases the FAA will provide a formal response within 60 days from the time a completed application is submitted.

For some agencies, a 60-day response window is a non-starter. To resolve this, the FAA offers expedited approval through a Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process.

This process is specifically for:

• Firefighting
• Search and Rescue
• Law Enforcement
• Utility or Other Critical Infrastructure Restoration
• Incident Awareness and Analysis
• Damage Assessments Supporting Disaster Recovery Related Insurance Claims
• Media Coverage Providing Crucial Information to the Public

However, to apply for a waiver through the FAA’s SGI process you must have an existing Part 107 Remote Pilot with a current certificate, or you must have an existing COA.

Public Concern

For some departments, public concern about agency drone use may pose a barrier greater than any financial one. These concerns can be managed through education and awareness.

Charles Werner of the National Council on Public Safety UAS offers these suggestions for managing objections to public agency drone use:

• Know what you are getting into, as a UAS program requires governance, policies/procedures, defining missions, selection of UAS and payloads, training/proficiency, maintenance, and thorough documentation

• Engage your jurisdiction’s administration and elected officials

• Be transparent

• Provide success stories from other localities

• Plan to use the UAS for multiple public safety missions and with other public safety agencies

• Where possible, create a multi-discipline public safety UAS team

• Where possible, create a regional team of public safety from multiple jurisdictions

• Develop a clear policy as to when UAS will be used for surveillance and evidentiary purposes

• Provide the safeguards that will be in place to ensure personal privacy

• Explain recording policy and length of maintaining those video recordings

• Explain the extent to maintain training and safety protocols

• Consider involving the local ACLU in a review of department UAS policies

• Ensure your pilots are certified and licensed under the appropriate FAA regulations

Changing Trends

While some agencies may experience community objection, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A recent survey sponsored by Cape found that more Americans now support the use of drones by law enforcement to improve community safety.

“Safety concerns are on the rise and consumers expect their local law enforcement and public safety agencies to leverage the very best tools and technology to keep them safe,” said Chris Rittler, CEO of Cape. “Today, drones are among the most powerful tools for providing law enforcement and first-response agencies with access to the aerial visibility and intelligence needed to ensure the safety of first responders, local residents, and visitors. The agencies that fully leverage these critical tools will be leading the way when it comes to keeping our country safe.”

We are at an inflection point. Drones are changing how public safety agencies operate. Don’t get left behind. The time to develop your drone program is now.

About the Author

Michael Robbins is the CEO and founder of Drone Universities. He is a drone educator with more than 30 years of aerial experience. He has worked with the numerous organizations including CNN, Adobe, Oracle, HP, Cisco Systems, Discovery Channel, National Geographic and NASA. Robbins is the first person to build, pilot and deploy a portable cell tower for Nokia/Bell Labs, and continues to consult for public safety agencies and the private sector.

This article appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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