How Drones (a.k.a. UAVs) are Flying into the Public Safety Sector

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), can be dated back to as early as 1849 in the form of unmanned hot air balloons that were used by Austrians in an attempt to bomb Venice.  Things have changed a lot since then. The more commonly known drones that you see now are compact, often equipped with a camera, and have taken the tech world by storm. With UAVs costing as little at $130 on Amazon, they are being used by tech-savvy adventurists, vloggers, photographers and videographers. And there is one industry that has taken a liking to drones and seen a quick and rapid adoption of the tool. Public safety.

A Brief History

For both the United States and Canada, public safety agencies began to implement the use of drones in 2013. In the United States, police forces often must apply for a UAV permit. However, if approved, the additional regulations set on using drones for law enforcement is decided at a state level. A common theme in state-level drone regulations is the concern for public privacy. As of June 2017, “at least 18 states have passed legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a search warrant to use drones for surveillance or to conduct a search.”

The first believed record of the use of UAVs in a police case is thought to be in the 2005 search for missing person Tara Grinstead. The Irwin County Sheriff’s Office contracted a private firm for the use of UAVs in an aerial search for Tara. Unfortunately, she was not located during the search & rescue mission, but this would be the start of a fast-paced expansion of drones in public safety. In 2013 law enforcement agencies began moving away from using private contractors to purchasing their own drones.

Recently, data was released from a study conducted by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College that concluded that as of 2018, it is “estimate[d] that at least 910 state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency service agencies in the U.S. have acquired drones.” And, that law enforcement agencies make up approximately two-thirds of those public safety agencies that have UAVs.

Police and Drones

Just a few weeks ago, the largest police force in the US, the NYPD, revealed their new drone system. It is not shocking that the NYPD chose to adopt drone technology, as the benefits and applications of using UAVs are quite extensive.

The Benefits

Some of the current ways that police departments are using UAVs:

  • Accessibility: Drones can provide better accessibility to higher altitudes that police officers cannot normally access due to it being too dangerous or simply out of reach.
  • Alleviate Manpower: Drones can capture and store hi-resolution recording footage, freeing up officers to do other work during an investigation.
  • Search & Rescue: Drones can be used during search and rescue missions when every second matters. They can cover land quickly and can use thermal imaging to conduct night searches.
  • Traffic Collision Reconstruction: “The combination of drones and 3D mapping software allows investigators to quickly and efficiently create a 3D rendering of the actual crash site instead of manually recreating from ground photos and manual measurements.”
  • Active Shooter Investigations / Mass Evacuations: Drones allow officers to inspect an armed and dangerous person from a safe distance. “This gives officers real-time, actionable intel to assess the threat while formulating a strategy for their approach.”
  • Crime Scene Analysis: Similar to the traffic collision method, investigators can use UAV video and photos to have “an accurate view of the actual crime scene … allowing details to be noticed well after the initial analysis is complete.”
  • Surveillance: Drones can allow an area to be investigated from afar which can offer officers more safety and discretion from being discovered when monitoring an area for an extensive time.
  • Crowd Monitoring: Drones allow officers to monitor crowds and scan for potential threats. In the event of an attack or threat, the drone can also be used to follow a person through a crowd safely and quickly. Police can also use the video footage to get a description of the perpetrator.
  • Hazardous Material Spills: Drones can be used to assess a hazardous spill, determine the perimeter of the spill, and help identify a safe entry and exit point for the hazmat team.

Potential Liabilities

This multitude of possible uses has clearly won many agencies over. However, there has been backlash to UAVs ever since their initial introductions into law enforcement in 2013.

  • Privacy Breach: The biggest concern with drones is that they will have a direct impact on public privacy. There is fear that video monitoring would lead to the government collecting data for facial recognition and using the drones to spy on persons of interest.
  • Hacking Risks: “Law enforcement personnel operate drones via internet access.” Therefore, the drones can be hacked and the data stolen or tampered with.
  • Expensive: Drone programs are expensive. The NYPD’s recently launched program has 14 drones for a total cost of $480,000. With a starting salary of $42,500 for a rookie cop in the NYPD, that’s an opportunity cost of an additional 11 officers on the streets.

However, the list of potential downsides is significantly smaller than the list of life saving and time-saving uses for drones. That is most likely why a growing number of police departments have moved forward with drone technology.


When thinking of drone use in public safety, most people think of police departments first. However, fire departments have also rapidly adopted the technology. Firefighters have a wide variety of potential uses for UAVs.

  1. To Assess a Fire: A drone can fly over a fire and assess how far a fire has spread and where it is likely going to go next. “When a fire is starting to die out, it can still contain smoldering hot spots that are invisible to the naked eye, and a thermal camera attached to a drone can highlight these spots to firefighters.”
  2. Natural Disaster Intel: Firefighters are part of the first responder teams that help during natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. Drone footage can assess the scope of the disaster and allow for a plan of assistance to be made quickly.
  3. Thermal Imaging: Fire chiefs will not put their crew in danger to save physical property. Priority is always simply to contain the fire. However, if civilians are trapped in a fire, the crew will rush into danger to rescue people in need. Thermal imaging from drones swiftly tells a crew if there is someone on the top floor that needs to be rescued, or if the crew can simply focus on containment.
  4. Emergency Deliveries: Drones can be used in disasters to fly in emergency supplies. If people are trapped in an inaccessible space, or during a disaster, fire departments can send in supplies while rescue efforts are still under way.
  5. Additional Uses: Like police, firefighters can use drones for investigations, hazardous spills and search and rescue missions.


Drones have not been embraced by many correctional facilities yet, but a few early adopters have taken the leap. In June 2018, the South Carolina Department of Corrections announced their UAV program. The drones will be used in all 21 prisons in the state and is believed to be the “first prison system in the country to use drones to fight contraband.” This new program is described as allowing prisons to monitor both the ground and the sky around the prison. The program has seemed to be successful for the participating facilities so far. If it shows proven results in increased safety, other states may follow with similar adaptations.

For the correctional industry, drones have a few key uses:

  1. Security: Drones can be used to monitor the perimeter of the grounds. Thermal imaging allows the agency to see if there is anyone trying to sneak into or out of the barrier. As well, it allows agencies to locate all prisoners via thermal imaging during a lock down scenario.
  2. Combat Foreign Drones: Correctional facilities have had issues for years across the country with outsider drones being used to drop contraband into prison grounds. Items such as drugs, weapons and cellphones have been dropped to prisoners. A system of drones can combat these issue by capturing live video to later monitor what was dropped and to who.
  3. Surveillance: A department’s drone pilot could be directed to follow a foreign drone or escaped individual to alert police of their destination.
  4. Discouraging Rebellions: Drones can help discourage rebellions by serving as a reminder that there will be accountability for prisoner’s actions. The drone can also be flown into a riot or a fight to remind inmates that they are being watched and filmed, and there will be consequences for their actions.

In Corrections there are regulations and rules for drone usage. “Designated staff pilots need to pass the FAA regulations and get proper flight training.” However, the fact that UAVs can apply an additional layer of security to prisons will mean that we will likely see more adoption of this tool within corrections over the next few years.


When it comes to emergency dispatch and emergency medical services, this sector refuses to be left behind in the adoption of drone technology. While these tactics have not been introduced yet in North America, Sweden has started some innovative measures for drones.

  • Deliver Medical Supplies: Dispatchers can deploy drones to deliver automated external defibrillator (AED) equipment to the location of a medical emergency, allowing a bystander to use the equipment until emergency medical technicians arrive on the scene.
  • Drowning: Drones were also used in a test at a popular beach called Tylosand in Scandinavia. The test was designed to see if live drone footage could be used to quickly locate submerged victims. There is also future potential for the drones to carry self-inflatable buoys to drop to drowning victims.
  • Ice Rescue: While this program is still being tested in Goteborg, Sweden, there is potential for drones to be used to locate victims trapped in breaking ice and drop buoyancy equipment to them.

Drones are the Future of Public Safety

As we have clearly seen outlined, drones can have a positive impact in every public safety sector. And when it comes to an industry that oversees our well-being, we should have a positive outlook on this new technology that will not only provide huge efficiency gains but keep both us safe and those that protect us.

What are your thoughts, do you agree? Let us know in the comments below.

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