Drones and Law Enforcement
By Peter DeLisa

Live PD broadcasted on Feb. 10, 2017, treated viewers to a look into our future. Four individuals had robbed a store in North Carolina and were chased over 70 miles while shooting at pursuing officers. When they crashed, they ran into a car lot and subsequently into the woods, at night. In an extremely dangerous situation, officers with rifles and K9’s went into the dark searching for the suspects.

Then, something very different happened. A deputy arrived and deployed a drone equipped with a thermal camera. Thermal images appeared on screen for all to view. Soon thereafter, the criminals were captured.In the past, the use of aerial and thermal imaging cameras were only from those agencies with helicopters. Now, drones are being used with the same or even better results. Unfortunately, the use of a drone is not without challenges. In Aug. 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration put into effect rules under 14 CFR Part 107. Those rules specify pilot licensing requirements, operational parameters, and training. Public safety agencies are NOT exempt. In the past, agencies could apply for and obtain a certificate of authorization or COA. Those certificates are no longer being issued and operators and agencies have to comply with Part 107 licensing and obtain necessary waivers.What is necessary to operate a drone? A pilot must pass an FAA knowledge exam. Then,a license for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will be issued. The drone must be no more than 55 pounds and registered with the FAA. Drones must be operated no higher than 400 feet above ground level, in daylight, not above people, and only in class G Airspace (uncontrolled airspace and generally not near a busy airport). Drones must also remain in the pilot’s sight and cannot be operated from a moving vehicle without a waiver.The next obstacle to deploy a drone for your agency is if you are near an airport. What can you do? If it’s not a busy airport, you only need to make notification by phone. If it’s in controlled airspace--Newark, Teterboro, Trenton, etc.--you can apply for a waiver that will allow you to operate. Waivers take about 90 days to obtain and are valid for four years. How do we fly at night? That rule is also subject to waiver. For night operations, you will need a trained observer to help you operate safely. Although drone technology may not be easy, it is certainly easier, quicker, and cheaper than using a helicopter. 

Law enforcement drone usages include: suspect search, search and rescue, crime scene documentation, fatal accident documentation and measurement, SWAT operations and scene control. I would caution against using drones for surveillance. The public is extremely sensitive to the perception of ‘surveillance’ by police and most states are enacting laws to prevent this. Don’t be a test case! Also keep in mind, drones typically fly 20 to 30 minutes without a battery change.

Your agency can add a drone to their apparatus. It’s really not difficult to make happen. Just like the training on the Intoxilyzer, being on a SWAT team or riding a motorcycle, it’s all about training, education and experience. Locate a professional or take a training class. If your agency already has a pilot, the process is easier. Take the test and get your UAS license. 

Select a drone that will fulfill your agency’s needs. A commercial drone with camera and software and thermal camera can cost between $12-15,000. 

Start small and practice, practice, practice. Most drones have a flight simulator program. Some have an autopilot function that will completely fly the mission for you! As you become experienced or if you collaborate with an aviation professional, you can expand the operation and apply to fly at night, fly higher, and fly in controlled airspace. Many agencies across the United States and some in New Jersey are already doing just that.

The Monmouth and Ocean County Sheriff, have programs and operate several drones. Bergen County OEM has a program. They have successfully used drones in a variety of situations. 

Welcome to the future! An autonomous drone is being developed for use by patrol officers. The television show ‘APB’ showcases drone technology weekly and ‘Live PD’ has shown us their actual use. We have a saying in aviation, “It is best to be on the front side of the power curve.” Now is the time to get out there with this technology.

Peter DeLisa is an aviation and law enforcement professional. He is an Airline Transport Pilot rated in Jet aircraft, certified flight instructor, and Part 107 Drone instructor and pilot. He has also served as an officer, detective, supervisor, and instructor with expertise in narcotics, firearms, and animal cruelty. He owns and operates Eastern Drone Solutions in Monmouth County NJ. He can be reached at