The use of drones in the U.S. and worldwide has skyrocketed, among everyday consumers as well as law enforcement agencies. During the 2015 holiday season alone, over 700,000 drones were sold in the U.S.

Because we work closely with clients in the sports and major event entertainment industries who are concerned about the use of drones, we are addressing the security-related risks associated with commercial and personal drone use. To do so, we work with law enforcement to implement appropriate countermeasures and have seen the amazing things drones can do.

Drones Represent an Increasingly Important Law Enforcement Tool

Law enforcement agencies now regularly use drones, which can be great assets that help with crime prevention and apprehending suspects. As cited by Police One, law enforcement are using drones to assist police pursuits. Consider this scenario:

“A vehicle just fled a traffic stop. The driver, aware his driver’s license is suspended, knows the agency has a strict no-chase policy and, if he runs, no one will chase him. Suddenly, several patrol vehicles arrive and block the vehicle in before it can move through the intersection. The driver is taken into custody without any idea how the police followed him.

Over a half-mile away, a drone is recovered by one of the agency’s pilots. The drone had been launched just after the driver fled, and the pilot was able to locate the vehicle in the area based on a description provided by the initiating officer. The drone followed the vehicle – almost silent at an altitude of 300 feet above the ground – while the pilot relayed vehicle position reports to ground-based units. The trap was set and, when the opportunity came, it was sprung.”

Drones Are Also Valued by Criminal Entities

Law enforcement is also coming to the realization that drones are being used by criminal adversaries against their operational activities. According to Police One Magazine, counter surveillance of law enforcement is becoming the fastest-growing way organized criminals are using drones. During the conference in May 2018, Joel Mazel, head of the FBI’s operational technology law unit, described an incident in which a criminal gang used drones to disrupt an FBI hostage operation, Defense One reports. Mazel said last winter, an FBI hostage rescue team set up an elevated observation post to assess an unfolding situation.

During the incident, Mazel said the team soon noticed drones swooping around them in a series of “high-speed low passes at the agents in the observation post to flush them.” Mazel said the group lost situational awareness of the target as a result of the drones surveilling them. “We were then blind,” Mazel said. “It definitely presented some challenges.” Mazel said the suspects backpacked the drones into the area in anticipation of the FBI’s arrival. He added that the suspects surveilled the hostage team and kept an eye on the agents, feeding video to the group’s other members via YouTube.

New Regulations Are Starting to Target Use of Drones

As with any new technology, the drone industry and their use of these devices by law enforcement must contend with growing pains. Since 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a national notice to aviators restricting the use of any drone within three miles and up to 3,000 feet above event venues with a capacity of more than 30,000 people. After there were several near-misses between drones and regular air traffic, the FAA also now requires drone owners to register their aircraft.

To address mounting issues with drone use, the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee provides the FAA with advice on key drone integration problems and how to prioritize improvements. Two of their primary concerns that have been hotly debated are safety and privacy. Drone use in U.S. law enforcement is no exception to these concerns.

Drone Use and Safety Is A Top Priority

Law enforcement agencies need to define and adhere to their own safety standards when using drones as part of their operations. Just last month BBC News reported that the United Kingdom issued a report that a police drone had a “near-miss” with a fighter jet at 520 mph in January 2018. The drone operator “honestly believed” the two aircraft would crash, according to the U.K. Airprox Board. The report explained, “The jet came into view from right to left and seemed to pass by the drone at the same altitude; it looked like the jet was within 200m laterally of the drone. Once the jet was in view it started banking to the right and [the operator] honestly believed it was going to collide with the drone.”

Drone Use and Privacy Will Continue to Pose Challenges

While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is sometimes misinterpreted as a foe of law enforcement, they make an excellent point because:

“U.S. law enforcement is greatly expanding its use of surveillance drones, and private actors are also seeking to use the technology for personal and commercial use. Drones have many beneficial uses, including in search-and-rescue missions, scientific research, mapping, and more. But deployed without proper regulation, drones equipped with facial recognition software, infrared technology, and speakers capable of monitoring personal conversations would cause unprecedented invasions of our privacy rights. Interconnected drones could enable mass tracking of vehicles and people in wide areas. Tiny drones could go completely unnoticed while peering into the window of a home or place of worship.”

Looking Ahead: The Future of Drones

Defense contractors are predicting that by 2025, enormous military-style drones – close relatives of the sort made famous by counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be visible 2,000 feet above U.S. cities, streaming high-resolution video to police departments below. As Defense One reports, “That is the bet that multiple defense contractors are placing, anyway, as they race to build unmanned aircraft that can pass evolving airworthiness certifications and replace police helicopters. And if that bet pays off, it will radically transform the way cities, citizens, and law enforcement interact.”

As federal, state and local law enforcement agencies formulate strategies to defend the public from drone-related threats, they should consider the safety and privacy concerns when using their own drones. Used properly, our society will greatly benefit from increased public safety, but clear standards must be defined to ensure they meet expectations.