Use of UAVs in law enforcement

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for domestic police work in Canada and the United States;[1][2] a dozen US police forces had applied for UAV permits by March 2013.[3] Texas politician Jim Hightower has warned about potential privacy abuses from aerial surveillance.[4][5]

By country[edit]


The Deutsche Bahn (German national railways) said in 2013 that it would test small surveillance UAVs with thermal cameras to prosecute vandals who spray graffiti on its property at night. Graffiti incidents cost the Deutsche Bahn $10 million per year to clean up.[6]


Many police departments in India have procured drones for law and order and aerial surveillance.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

United States[edit]

In 2005, a fixed wing drone was used by the Irwin County Sheriff's Office in Georgia to assist in the search for Tara Grinstead. Ms. Grinstead was a local teacher and former beauty queen and her disappearance caused a great deal of concern in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia. A private search firm, Texas Equusearch, was called in to assist with the search. Texas Equusearch brought in drone specialist Gene Robinson of RPFlightSystems, Inc. to begin the imaging of large areas that could have possibly held clues to her whereabouts. This was the first televised (Court TV) use of a drone in police work in the U.S. The victim was not found during that effort but in February 2017, one of her former students who was not even a person of interest (POI) confessed to the murder of Ms. Grinstead to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI). The killer led the GBI to an area some 10 miles north of Ocilla where possible human remains were found. This use of the fixed drone (Spectra) is likely the "ground zero" of drone use by civilian police in the U.S.

In 2011, a Predator drone was used to assist an arrest in North Dakota.[13]

In February 2013, Seattle mayor Michael McGinn ordered the Seattle Police Department to abandon plans to use UAVs after objections from residents.[14] Two DraganflyerX6 craft had been purchased with a federal grant and the police had been granted FAA approval though they had not started using them.[14] The vehicles were to be returned to the manufacturer.[14] Seattle Police Department had announced in October 2012 that they were drafting a policy and they were one of the first police forces in the United States to receive approval from the federal government to use UAVs.[15] Opponents of the programme included the Washington chapter of the ACLU.[14] The ACLU has also been concerned with privacy over drones that the Los Angeles Police Department had acquired.[16]

UAVs can be powerful surveillance tools by carrying camera systems capable of license plate scanning and thermal imaging as well as radio equipment and other sensors.[17] The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act request on 10 January 2012 against the Federal Aviation Administration.[18] As a result of the request, the FAA released a list of the names of all public and private entities that have applied for authorizations to fly UAVs domestically.[19] Some of these government licenses belong to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a component of the Department of Homeland Security. UAVs have been used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to patrol United States borders since 2005, and the agency currently owns 10 UAVs[20] with plans to use armed drones.[21]

A May 2012, report issued by the DHS Inspector General found that CBP "needs to improve planning of its unmanned aircraft systems program to address its level of operation, program funding, and resource requirements, along with stakeholder needs".[22] Also, despite the Bureau’s limited mission to safeguard the borders, the Bureau often flies missions for the FBI, the Department of Defense, NOAA, local law enforcement, and other agencies. In December 2011, the CBP made headlines when reporters discovered that the agency's UAVs were being used to assist local law enforcement in relation to cattle raiding in North Dakota without receiving prior approval from the FAA or any other agency.[23]

Individuals in the United States have few legal privacy protections from aerial surveillance conducted through UAVs. In Florida v. Riley,[1] the United States Supreme Court held that individuals do not have the right to privacy from police observation from public airspace. The weakness of legal protection from UAV surveillance have led to calls from civil liberties advocacy groups for the U.S. government to issue laws and regulations that establish both privacy protections and greater transparency regarding the use of UAVs to gather information about individuals.[24] As an example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has warned of a "nightmare scenario" in the future where the police might be able, with computer technology, to combine mobile phone tracking with video data and build up a database of people's routine daily movements.[3]

On 24 February 2012, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, joined by over 100 organizations, experts, and members of the public, submitted a petition to the FAA requesting a public rule-making on the privacy impact of UAV use in U.S. airspace.[25] In June 2012, Senator Rand Paul and Representative Austin Scott both introduced legislation that would require law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using a UAV to conduct surveillance of criminal activities.[26] EPIC has stated that transparency and accountability must be built into the FAA's system of UAV/UAS/RPV regulation in order to provide basic protections to the public.[27]

While Congress rapidly moves ahead to authorize further use of domestic UAVs, many remain skeptical regarding privacy concerns.[2] Some privacy scholars argue that the domestic use of UAVs for surveillance will ultimately benefit privacy by encouraging society to demand greater privacy rights.

Associated today with the theatre of war, the widespread domestic use of drones for surveillance seems inevitable. Existing privacy law will not stand in its way. It may be tempting to conclude on this basis that drones will further erode our individual and collective privacy. Yet the opposite may happen. Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.

— Ryan Calo[28]

FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on 19 June 2013 that the FBI owns and uses UAVs for the purposes of "surveillance".[29]

In 2014, the California State Senate passed rules imposing strict regulations on how law enforcement and other government agencies can use drones. The legislation would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before using an unmanned aircraft, or drone, except in emergencies.[30]

Approximately 167 police and fire departments bought unmanned aerial vehicles in the United States in 2016, double the number that were purchased in 2015.[31][32]

United Kingdom[edit]

In March 2014, Sussex Police announced a pilot project using an Aeryon Skyranger for three months at Gatwick Airport.[33] The project was funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers to test the effectiveness of the technology in policing.[33] The equipment cost £35,000 with the training of four police officers costing £10,000.[33] In October 2014 it was reported that five English police forces (Merseyside, Staffordshire,[34] Essex, Wiltshire and the West Midlands) had obtained or operated unmanned aerial vehicles for observation.[35]

In 2007, Merseyside Police was reported to be conducting tests with a UAV.[36][37] Merseyside Police caught a car thief with a UAV in 2010, but about a week later had to stop UAV operations as the UAV was not licensed. Regulations introduced at the start of 2010 required any aerial surveillance by unmanned aircraft - no matter the size of the drone - to be licensed.[38][39] A licence was granted by the Civil Aviation Authority but the UAV was lost soon after during a training exercise in Aigburth, Liverpool, when it crashed in the River Mersey.[40] and the police stated the UAV would not be replaced due to operational limitations and the cost of staff training.[40]


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