Drones and Their Role In Law Enforcement In the USA

On May 8, 2019, 35-year old physical therapist Amanda Heller went missing during a morning run in the isolated Makawao Forest Reserve in Hawaii. Heller was, thankfully, found injured but alive 16 days later, thanks to the extraordinary endeavors of law enforcement officials and volunteers who made use of the latest technology to boost their search efforts. Apart from making use of traditional methods involving canine search teams, a bird’s eye view of the area was obtained thanks to drones armed with infrared cameras. While aerial surveillance can be seen as incredibly invasive, it has been paramount in resolving a number of very challenging cases ever since drone use became commonplace in maintaining public safety.

Drone use becoming more commonplace in national law enforcement

Drones have long been used for a lot more than nature photography and music videos. In a 2013 letter to then-senator Rand Paul, the FBI revealed that they have been using aerial drones for surveillance purposes in a variety of missions, including kidnappings, fugitive investigations, and search-and-rescue operations. While they further admitted to using drone surveillance in eight criminal cases and two cases of national security since late 2006, it is only in recent years that UAV use has become commonplace among law enforcement agencies. As of May 2018, 910 state and local public safety agencies have actively been making use of drones in their bid to fight crime and keep the communities they serve safe.

What does the law state about drone usage by law enforcement agencies?

At present, there is no nationwide standard as far as drone usage by law enforcement agencies is concerned. In 1989, during the Florida v. Riley case, the Supreme Court ruled that there is no right to privacy when it comes to police observation in public airspace. Seattle famously reversed its course in 2013 and withdrew all plans to equip police with drones, thanks to increasing protests. In 2014, the Senate of California passed a bill that would require all law enforcement officers to secure a warrant for drone surveillance. The bill was, however, vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown, which left the door open for police to use drones without the need for warrants.

How are drones used by law enforcement?

At present, drones are used for a variety of reasons, ranging from hostage negotiations and bomb investigations to criminal surveillance and crime scene analysis. The San Jose police department in San Jose, California procured a drone for the sole purpose of accessing potential explosive devices, thus keeping the bomb squad out of harm’s way. In the case of a fire, active shooter, or any other emergency that may require some form of evacuation, a drone can be used to collect the necessary data required to create orthomosaic maps used to understand the situation better. While the drones that are currently being used are quite large, the drones of the future will feature a biomimetic design that closely mimics nature. These drones, which may look like a butterfly or a small bird, will be able to fly into a very small space to get valuable footage without being noticed.

The use of drones and other technologies are making the work of law enforcement agencies significantly easier. Thanks to the breakneck speed at which drone technology is evolving, one can’t even begin to imagine to what extent it will influence public safety in the future.

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