Over the past ten years, the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) has significantly grown. Where once limited to military applications, UASs, commonly referred to as “drones,” have been adapted for many commercial purposes. Commercial drones can generally be grouped into vertical rotor (single or multi), fixed wing, and vertical takeoff fixed-wing hybrid types . Multirotor drones are widespread in commercial applications because they can take off vertically, maintain a hover, and are comparatively easy to fly . U.S. regulations require drones to be less than 55 pounds, have a speed slower than 80 mph, be flown under 400 ft from the ground or ground objects, and operate within the visual line of sight. Lenient regulations and the availability of low-cost equipment have allowed many industries, such as construction, cinematography, agriculture, and real estate, to incorporate drones into their operations . Law enforcement, in particular, has significantly incorporated drones into their operations. UASs have supported the law enforcement community in many ways, including crime scene investigation , accident scene documentation , bomb threats , and search and rescue .
The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College recently published a report indicating how frequently public safety agencies, including police, fire safety, and emergency management, were using drones to support their missions . The data were collected from news media, FAA drone regulation waivers, and other publicly available data. The report indicated that South Carolina had only 26 public safety agencies using drones. Given the state has more than 350 law enforcement offices, this number seems alarming low. Underscoring this statistics is the Mercatus Center at George Mason University scoring South Carolina 43rd out of 50 for drone commerce . There are many reasons why so few agencies were reportedly using drones; however, two possibilities are that there is not a desire by the agency leadership to use drones or that there are insufficient drone technicians to operate them. This study will focus on law enforcement and evaluate if there is market demand by police chiefs to use drones and if South Carolina and bordering states are supplying a significant number of law enforcement UAS technicians.
he use of UASs has significantly grown over the past several years. One of the drivers behind this was the implementation of the CFR Title 14 Part 107 (Part 107) regulations in 2016. Before Part 107’s release, the regulatory environment was prohibitively burdensome for most non-hobby UAS activities. Commercial drone operators were required to apply for a Section 333 exemption, which had requirements that made drones an unviable alternative to traditional workflows. With the release of Part 107, the industry has grown rapidly. As of August 2022, nearly 300,000 people have received their remote pilot certificate . To put this in perspective, that is more than the 266,000 licensed commercial and private pilots in the United States .
Law Enforcement UAS Hardware
The two most common drone types are multirotor and fixed-wing. Multirotor UASs are “helicopter” style drones with vertical propellers providing lift. Fixed-wing drones operate like an airplane with horizontal foils providing lift. According to a recent survey, over 90% of public safety agencies using drones operate the multirotor type . Some of the reasons multirotor drones are preferred are their ability to launch and land horizontally, maintain a hover, fly at low altitudes around obstructions, and carry a wide range of payloads. The two most common payloads are RGB cameras with zoom capabilities and infrared imagers. Figure 1 shows two images of a street sign taken at the same location. The image on the right has been enlarged with a 40× optical zoom in real time. This type of zoom sensor allows law enforcement to gather intelligence without impacting scene operations or giving away the position to persons of interest. Still, images are also used in structure-from-motion software to create 3D reconstructions of accident or crime scenes.
Thermal imagery is a valuable tool long used by law enforcement. High-resolution 640 × 512 resolution infrared imagers are the UAS industry standard. These imagers allow officers to detect fleeing suspects, see automobiles warmed from recent use, and navigate at night without light that gives away the position of the UAS. Figure 2 provides an example of an infrared thermogram collected with a UAS.
Law Enforcement Drone Uses
DRONERESPONDERS is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to support public safety agencies using drones. In early 2019, DRONERESPONDERS published the findings of a national study. One of their key findings was that “most public safety UAS programs are in their infancy” and “bootstrapping their way into the air” . In a follow-up survey, over 300 law enforcement, fire safety, and emergency management professionals completed a survey on various drone topics . One area of interest for this study was how public safety agencies use drones. The most common uses were training/exercises, search and rescue, and incident command and control. Other notable uses were crime scene investigation, mapping, public information, and special event planning. The complete list of mission types ranked in order of frequency is provided in Table 1.
Table 1. Mission Type Frequency from DRONERESPONDERS 2019 Surveya
|Search and Rescue||139|
|Incident Command and Control (Live Streaming)||130|
|Crime Scene Investigation/Forensic Analysis||119|
|Mapping (Non-Forensic Related)||114|
|Security Overwatch (Surveillance)||103|
|Structure Fire Response||98|
|Special Event Planning||81|
|Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Response||52|
aFrom DRONERESPONDERS (2019)
A similar study was conducted by a collaborative effort between the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Justice . Their data came from a quantitative online survey of nearly 300 police departments, 50 interviews with police executives, and a national law enforcement conference roundtable discussion. Their survey and conclusions were similar to the DRONERESPONDERS study. The most common drone use cases were search and rescue, crime scene photography and reconstruction, and investigating armed and dangerous suspects. Table 2 provides a complete list of uses from their study.
Table 2. Common Purposes for Using Drones in Policinga
|Search and Rescue||91%|
|Crime Scene Photography and Reconstruction||85%|
|Investigating Armed and Dangerous Suspects||84%|
|Traffic Collision Reconstruction||81%|
|Hazardous Material and Bomb Observation||68%|
aFrom PERF (2019)
Bard College Study
Public safety agencies generally operate autonomously with respect to their equipment purchases and activity management. With only a few exceptions, such as Minnesota, they are not required to disclose in detail the number of drones they own or how they are being used. Quantifying how many public safety agencies use drones is difficult because the information comes from publicly available data and the news media. The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College maintains the “only comprehensive open-access tally of publicly disclosed public safety agencies that are reported to own at least one drone” . Their data comes from local media, FAA Part 107 waivers, and publicly available annual reports, contracts, and meeting minutes from state and local government offices . The Bard College database contains over 1,500 public safety agencies believed to have drones. Over 70% of these agencies were in law enforcement, with the remaining in emergency management, fire rescue, or another public safety agency. Their database does not include agencies with undisclosed UAS operations or who outsource their drone activities. The center’s most recent report states that, because of this limitation, their findings should be used as a “barometer of the growing adoption of drones” and not to quantify specific drone activity in the public safety sector. While acknowledging this limitation, the report indicates that South Carolina has only 26 public safety agencies with drones. South Carolina has over 350 law enforcement offices, making Bard College’s finding alarmingly low.
There are many possible reasons why Bard College’s report indicated drones were being used so infrequently in South Carolina. The acknowledged limitation suggests that the low value could be a function of drone use simply being underreported. However, two other possibilities are the focus of this study. The first possibility is that there is an aversion to using drone technology at the agency leadership level. Leadership may feel there is little benefit to the technology and that it is not worth investing resources in. To address this, an online survey was emailed to 332 South Carolina police department chiefs. This represents over 90% of the police departments in the state. Law enforcement is the largest component in the public safety sector and the focus of this study. The survey contained a mix of Likert-scale, multiple-choice, and text-response questions.
A second possibility for low drone use in South Carolina is the lack of trained UAS technicians. UAS training can be provided at high schools, community-based organizations or at the police academies. Addressing this question comprehensively is beyond the scope of this study. However, an important part of the answer is UAS technician training at community colleges. This study thoroughly evaluated the UAS curriculum at two-year institutions in South Carolina and the bordering states of Georgia and North Carolina. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) is the leading regional accreditation body in the southeast. The course catalogs of all 110 SACS-accredited, two-year colleges in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina were searched for the keywords “drone,” “UAS,” “UAV,” and “unmanned.” The keywords were searched in the course titles and descriptions. Of the 110 two-year colleges evaluated, 94 had criminal justice (CRJ) degree programs. The CRJ program websites were also searched for the same keywords. The objective was to categorize how many drone courses were offered at the two institutions in South Carolina and the neighboring states supplying South Carolina’s labor market.
Of the 332 police department chiefs that were emailed a survey, 46 of them completed it for a 14% response rate. The first group of questions addressed drone use in their department. The first question confronted this topic head-on by asking, “Is there a need for licensed and trained drone operators in law enforcement?” An overwhelming 96% of the chiefs (44 of 46) indicated that there was. In a follow-up question, they were asked if they currently use drones in their department. Only 28 police chiefs (61%) indicated that their department currently uses drones. An important comparison can be made with these responses. Over 96% indicated a need, but only 61% indicated filling that need. A reasonable interpretation of the data is that some barrier is preventing 35% of the population from meeting an acknowledged need in their department. See Table 3 for the questions and responses given.
Table 3. Drone Use in South Carolina Police Departments
|1. Is there a need for licensed and trained drone operators in law enforcement?||96%||4%|
|2. Does your department currently use drones?||61%||39%|
Future Drone Use
Several questions were asked to address the departments’ drone programs’ future and how drone pilots would be trained. Nearly 93% of the departments currently using drones expect to increase their drone use in the future. Of the departments not using drones, 67% indicated that they expect to start using drones in the future. Only 13% of the chiefs surveyed indicated that they were not using drones and had no plans to in the future. The survey asked the chiefs using drones if they had a comprehensive training program giving their employees the skills and knowledge needed to operate drones for their department. Less than half (46%) of the departments using drones had internal training programs. This is consistent with the DRONERESPONDERS report indicating the departments were “bootstrapping their way into the air” . This also shows the need for external training centers, such as community colleges, to train UAS operators in law enforcement. This is reinforced by 35% of the survey respondents indicating that they did not expect their departments to develop a training program within the next five years. See Table 4 for a list of the questions and responses.
Table 4. Expected Use of Drones in South Carolina Police Departments
|1. Police departments using drones and expecting to increase their drone use in the future.||93%||7%|
|2. Police departments not currently using drones but expecting to in the future.||67%||33%|
|3. Police departments using drones that have a comprehensive training program that gives its employees the necessary skills and knowledge to operate a drone for law enforcement purposes.||46%||54%|
|4. Departments expected to develop a comprehensive drone training program |
in the next 5 years.
Disconnect Between the Need for Drones and Active Drone Programs
The data show a disconnect between department chiefs’ view that there is a need for drones in law enforcement and departments with active drone programs. The data also show that even with departments with active drone programs, there is a lack of comprehensive training. What is particularly concerning is the pessimistic opinion about developing an internal drone training program. In anticipation of this potential finding, the survey asked the department chiefs their opinions about a local community college with a CRJ degree developing a law enforcement UAS certificate program. The chiefs were asked a Likert-scale question on how supportive they were of the proposed certificate program. An overwhelming 76% were either “supportive” or “very supportive.” The chiefs were also asked if a new employee that was licensed and trained using drones in law enforcement should earn a higher salary, and 64% of the chiefs indicated that UAS-trained new employees should have a 1%–10% higher base salary. Perhaps the most revealing data gathered from the survey was the written text provided by the chiefs with respect to a new certificate program. A representative sample of the comments is bulleted below.
- “Drones are invaluable in law enforcement response and tactical operations.”
- “Drones have become a vital part of law enforcement.”
- “The use of drones in the law enforcement field is on the rise and will continue to be a critical part of our profession moving forward.”
- “There is a great lapse between having a drone and piloting a drone safely. It is time for agencies to be trained and qualified for safety and liability!”
- “The expanded use of drones in law enforcement will make officers safer and more efficient, and the ethical and lawful use of drones in the day-to-day work of law enforcement professionals is vital to this technology growing.”
- “Due to the fact we do not have any type of program that will provide classroom training for preparing individuals for getting their licensing with drones. I feel this is a much-needed program for individuals and law enforcement agencies wanting to become a licensed drone pilot.”
- “This tool is especially valuable to small rural agencies that do not have access to an air unit.”
- “Drone technology would be extremely important and useful in rural areas to assist with the apprehension of offenders during active criminal incidents.”
- “There is a critical need in law enforcement for new and developing technology. The use of UAS has proven to be very useful. Currently, we have to rely on neighboring agencies to provide such support.”
There are several key takeaways from the chiefs’ statements of support. The chiefs were overwhelmingly supportive of the technology using words such as “vital,” “invaluable,” “needed,” “useful,” “critical,” and “important.” General theme in their comments include the expectation that the technology would continue to grow, the lack of internal training capabilities and concerns about legality, safety, and privacy. Additionally, several indicated that UAS technology would be particularly useful to rural departments that cannot support manned aircraft. The lack of available training was also a recurrent message provided by the chiefs.
UAS Curriculum in 2-year Community Colleges
Half of the surveyed departments that use drones do not have a fully developed training program. While this training can be outsourced to private third-party vendors, an obvious provider for UAS education is community colleges with CRJ programs. Part of this study was to identify if community colleges in South Carolina and the neighboring states had UAS classes and how many had programs to develop law enforcement UAS technicians. The keywords “UAS,” “UAV,” “drone,” and “unmanned” were searched in the course catalogs and CRJ websites of 110 SACS-accredited community colleges. Of the 110 schools included in the study, 94 (85%) had CRJ degree programs. Only 15 schools had one or more courses that included a drone keyword in the title or course description. None of the UAS courses identified in the search were specific to law enforcement. The concerns raised by the police chiefs regarding the lack of UAS education appear to be well-founded. See Table 5 for the results of the keyword search.
Table 5. UAS Course at SACS-Accredited Community Colleges in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina
|State||No. of Schools||Schools With CRJ Degrees||Schools With UAS Courses||Schools With CRJ UAS Courses|
The Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College report indicated that South Carolina had 26 public safety agencies using drones . The center collected its data through publicly available data. It acknowledged that it should be used as a “barometer” of drone use and not as a tool to estimate how many agencies were using drones. Still, the value reported appeared surprisingly low and prompted the research team to evaluate drone use, focusing on law enforcement. It assessed the data through the lens of market demand and supply, where demand was the perceived need for drones by police chiefs and supply was the availability of training outlets for UAS technicians. Nearly two-thirds of the police departments surveyed were currently using drones. Assuming the survey is representative of all South Carolina’s police departments, it can be estimated that approximately 210 police law enforcement agencies are currently using drones. This is significantly more than the 26 reported in the Bard College report.
There appears to be ample market demand for UAS technicians. The survey showed that 61% of the police departments in South Carolina are using drones, with 93% of them expecting their program to grow. Of the departments that did not use drones, 67% expected to develop a drone program in the future. Access to training to develop UAS law enforcement technicians appears to be a challenge for South Carolina. Less than half of the police departments using drones have a comprehensive training program. The lack of education was echoed in the police chiefs’ written comments. Based on the course catalogs and CRJ department website, it does not appear that community colleges in the tristate area are keeping up with the supply needs of UAS technicians. Only 14% of the SACS-accredited community colleges in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina had drone courses. None of these drone courses were tailored to the specific needs of law enforcement.
This paper explores drone education at South Carolina’s community colleges. However, a requirement for South Carolina is that all law enforcement officers attend the state’s police academy. Currently, the state’s police academy does not include a UAS component. However, this could be an alternative way of improving drone education. Exploring the advantages and challenges associated with providing this additional curriculum is beyond the scope of this study and a recognized limitation worthy of additional research.
The data collected in this study suggests there is a need for law enforcement UAS technicians and a lack of training at the community college level in South Carolina. The ATE program was developed to support community colleges in creating programs to develop technicians for an advanced economy. The authors of this paper recommend that the 2-year institution in this state investigate participating in the ATE program and developing UASs in law enforcement certificate programs. Clemson University is a land grant institution and houses the ATE-supported Center for Aviation and Automotive Technological Education Using Virtual E-Schools (CA2VES). Community college faculty are encouraged to reach out to them as a resource for seeking ATE funding and developing UAS programs.
Disclosures. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
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