Unmanned aircraft can provide a number of tactical advantages for police, particularly in situations that require stealthy observation. But as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) works on proposed regulations for these vehicles, aviation experts believe safety issues still need to be addressed before widespread use takes off.

Chief among those concerns is the absence of a pilot to make decisions if an in-flight emergency arises. Whether it’s a computer malfunction or a potential for collision with another object, the lack of a pilot in the cockpit to respond to a situation could have disastrous consequences when it comes to safety both in the air and on the ground.

Interest in unmanned drones – officially known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – is growing among law enforcement agencies, which see the technology as an effective method for expanding surveillance and enforcement activities.

Dan Stratman, pilot consultant for Aviation Litigation Consulting, said the problem with unmanned aircraft is that applying defensive measures or the same type of common sense a pilot would use while in the air is not the same while remotely controlling an aircraft.

“If you are a pilot inside an airplane and the engine quits, you can look around and find an open area to put the airplane down in to avoid harming people on the ground,” Stratman said. “With these drones, I’m not sure how they would do something like that.”

Peter B. Field, an aviation consultant with 48 years of flying experience, agreed. He explained that while a pilot on the ground technically has control of an unmanned airplane, its more “partial control,” particularly if something breaks while in flight, or communication with the vehicle is interrupted.

“It’s when the link between the between the ground station and the aircraft is lost [that’s the problem],” Field said. “You don’t have a sentient being on board the aircraft who already has imprinted in his memory what to do if he loses communication … you’ve got an airplane out there that nobody can control.”

According to Dan Elwell, vice president of civil aviation at the Aerospace Industries Association that’s where the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) comes in. He explained that NextGen is a satellite air traffic control system that will replace the FAA’s legacy radar system that has been in use since the 1960s. 

Once that is in place, he believed it’ll make integrating unmanned aircraft systems into the aviation equation much easier, because aircraft will transmit to each other where they are, instead of a plane transmitting to a controller, who has to “connect the dots” between an aircraft and the available airspace.

Despite the issues, law enforcement agencies remain high on the technology. Although the project ultimately didn’t pan out due to cost, police in Ogden, Utah, flirted with the idea of an unmanned police blimp, going as far as getting a certificate of authorization — required by the FAA for anything that flies over 400 feet. high — to give the blimp a trial run.

Police in North Dakota also found the technology useful. Borrowing a Predator B spy aircraft from Grand Forks Air Force Base to assist in locating three armed suspects accused of stealing cattle. The Los Angeles Times reported that local law enforcement has used the plane a few different times since June 2011 for surveillance purposes.

What does the FAA have to say about unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and their increasing use? Not so much this year, so far.

The FAA was to issue proposed new rules for UAS in national airspace earlier this year, but has pushed back those rules until later in 2012, according to a statement from Alison Duquette, a spokesperson for the administration.

Stratman said one of the hurdles is the integration of UAS into normal air traffic. He explained that all commercial airliners have traffic collision avoidance systems (TCAS) and while private personal planes usually don’t, they have transponders that send out a signal that TCAS can pick up so they avoid any potential collisions.

That technology, or some version of it, needs to be a part of the evolutionary process of unmanned aircraft in order for UAS to more safely integrate with the rest of the air traffic in the skies.

Elwell agreed.

“You’ve got to get UAS technology and computer algorithms to the point where they effectively see other aircraft in all conditions and do the proper response to avoid when they sense other aircraft,” he said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.