UAVs and Policing

Jun 15, 2012

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Canadian Cops Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicles 
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) give public agencies new ‘eyes in the sky’ and Canadian law enforcement is leading the way.

In 2007, Constable Marc Sharpe of the Ontario Provincial Police in Kenora launched a whole new way to investigate accidents when he attached a digital camera to a home-built UAV to capture high quality images at major accident and case scenes. The intent was to save money by using a UAV instead of chartering helicopters or light aircraft… and it worked. His FIU-301 became the first civilian UAV in North America to win government approval for regular operations, and the RCMP Gazette recently reported that Sharpe’s cost-effective ways saved taxpayers more than $90,000 in just a few years.

The UAV is now fast becoming a standard investigative tool. “Almost all of our homicide cases in the last three or four years have had that aerial photo component from these systems,” Sharpe notes. “One or two simple aerial images let us tell a story much more easily. In a nutshell, that is what we do in forensics: we tell the story of any particular scene, be it a homicide or a major accident on a highway or an air crash.”

With a similar goal of saving money, RCMP Sergeant Dave Domoney began a one-year pilot program in December 2010, for collision reconstruction programs in Saskatchewan. However, the results have been so useful that his unit is now using UAVs well beyond accident investigation to include major crimes, search and rescue, and forensic identification.

From the very first day, using the UAVs for operational files, the officers ­recognized the value of this new tool. “On every single file, we come back to brief the investigators, and they are just dumbfounded with the quality of the pictures and what the pictures actually show,” Domoney says.

Pictures can help a judge and/or jury to accurately visualize a crime scene. “To be able to bring that photograph into court and have multiple witnesses explain what they saw and what they heard, what they tasted and what they smelled at that particular time is just amazing.”

The Halton Region Police Service (southwest of Toronto) started using UAVs for collision reconstruction but, as Detective Dave Banks of Halton’s Forensic Services now explains, they are finding many other uses for the versatile device. “We have used it for six search and rescue missions with the thermal camera at night. We are also looking at an Explosive Disposal Unit and marine operations, and at getting information about a place before our tactical team does an entry.” Tactical team operators are eager to work with the new technology even though aerial photography is not new. Photos from Unmanned Arial Systems (UAS) are infinitely less expensive and do not require the delays of filing flight plans.

A small, manœuverable UAS can see around corners and higher levels without putting an officer in harm’s way. They can provide an important aerial perspective for first responders, and are cheaper and less disruptive than other options.

Unlike fixed-wing aircraft, the helicopter-type, Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft are particularly easy to launch and recover, they can operate in ­confined environments, and can ­provide fixed-hover observation.

Marc Sharpe has seen advantages in tactical situations, such as with barricaded or cordoned off areas, “where you have a dangerous situation, where you can’t have your guys going in without some information, or you can’t have the public going in. So there is an advantage to putting up a nice, quiet little machine that gives you that immediate tactical view. Is there anybody in that backyard behind the fence? Is there a big dog? Is there a point of cover? Is there an old truck you can belly up to without being worried about somebody taking a crack at you from the structure?”

It seems like an ideal tool for law enforcement, but the fact that UAV’s are easy to operate doesn’t mean they can immediately support operations. In Halton Region, Dave Banks’s colleague, Detective Andy Olesen of the Explosives Disposal Unit tells FrontLine about a night exercise with the tactical team that “revealed some gaps to be filled before it becomes routine.” This is particularly true about the existing aversion to change, meaning that sometimes introducing new technologies isn’t quite as readily accepted, but Olesen believes the new tool will prevail. “It’ll happen,” he predicts, “it is just a matter of making people aware of what the technology can and can’t do.”

Beyond training, weather can become a limiting factor to UAV technology. “If it is pouring rain, like it or not, we are not going to get these things to function,” Olesen admits. “If there is a 50 km wind, well…”

However, the real barriers to UAV use in law enforcement or any other official application are regulatory. Transport Canada is extremely serious about air safety. “It’s been a long haul to get here. We’ve had to break down a lot of barriers,” Olesen says of the use of UAVs for policing. “We really didn’t have a template to look at from any other service, so we kind of developed a training program and a radio operators’ license and a full training program, and we had to work very hard to get a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada. They are very protective of issuing those, so we had to go a long way.”

Marc Sharpe agrees, noting that the Kenora OPP detachment’s remoteness gave Transport Canada some confidence that the force would be able to operate safely and professionally without putting anybody at risk. “The odds of something going wrong and causing damage or injury to somebody in the locations we were working was pretty remote, so it gave them that window of opportunity to kind of feel us out to see how we were going to respond and how we were going to play by the rules.”

Each year, the OPP asked for a little more airspace for its operations. “In the last couple of years we have had authority throughout the province of Ontario, both in controlled and uncontrolled airspace, with different restrictions… and, that said, the rules essentially didn’t change from those for isolated areas in the middle of nowhere to those for a downtown or an urban environment, because we still have to work within visual range, and within a secured police environment.”

Today’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology is lightweight, portable and easy to use. “More departments are going to use it,” says Olesen “because it is just so easy to get it out of the trunk of your car and put it up somewhere.”

Ease of use is a big selling feature for overworked police officers – as Constable Sharpe puts it, “I am a big proponent of small, lightweight, ‘out-of-the-trunk’ technology to get some work done.”

Some systems are small and light enough to fit into a backpack, and can be snapped together and launched within minutes of arrival at a scene. The latest UAV control technology takes the work out of flying. The units can handle most of the ‘flying’ automatically – so the operator simply directs the UAV using a touchscreen tablet with point-and-click navigation and camera control. “Fly-safe” controls bring ­aircraft home or land them automatically if there is a warning or error, and some machines claim to be able to fly in gusting wind because the system makes adjustments to the controls hundreds of times per second.

As one company states, “with true hands free operation, aerial photography becomes as easy as point and click” – this frees up the officer to pay more attention to the required evidence gathering rather than making sure the UAV doesn’t crash.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Security 2012