Are Unmanned Aircraft a Savior or Threat?

Unmanned aircraft can be a viable public safety tool but uncertainties and privacy concerns have held them back.

Unmanned aircraft
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Imagine giving firefighters the ability to identify hot spots in a wildfire, through real-time images, without risking the lives of staff members — or helping search and rescue teams scan a large area quickly for survivors after a disaster.

The technology to do this exists and is being used by some public safety agencies already with unmanned aerial vehicles. But UAVs have drawbacks, as well. Some agencies are adopting them, but concerns about safety, regulation and privacy are slowing the process.

UAVs are the vehicles flown by unmanned aircraft systems, or UASes, which include the aircraft and all the equipment required to control it. Both terms are used by those in the field. A more common name for them, drones, is not considered accurate by those who work most closely with the technology.


“Drones were remote-controlled aircraft
that were targets for missiles,” said Todd Sedlak, director of sales and flight operations and small UAS subject matter expert for Detroit Aircraft. The public sees them as “a mindless thing that does one thing.” He said UAVs have the capacity “to save lives, to help people and to prevent damage to equipment, property and people.”

UAVs come in all sizes: Some fit in the palm of a hand, while others are as large as full-size aircraft. There are two main types of UAVs: fixed-wing, which resemble airplanes and need runways, and vertical takeoff and landing, which can hover.

The U.S. Forest Service has been exploring potential uses of UAVs and UASes for several years, said Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist with the agency’s Washington office.

“We’re very interested in this technology, and we’ve identified a lot of potential missions they could be used for,” Jones said. “And we have used them in a few cases very successfully.”

The Forest Service used unmanned aircraft in a partnership with the California Air National Guard to fight the 2013 Rim Fire. In the response to the fire, the UAVs allowed the incident team “to view events while they were happening,” said Jones. The equipment was used, for example, to verify new hot spots and detect the perimeter of the fire.

“It provided live, real-time images that could supplement those traditional nighttime infrared flights,” Jones said.

The Forest Service’s mission extends beyond fighting fires. There are several other ways UAVs could be used:

  • Forest protection and management: UAVs could help monitor the condition of forests, determine the effectiveness of reforestation efforts or assess damage from events such as fires, landslides or floods. They could also help detect and map damage from insects, diseases and invasive plant species.
  • Watershed management: UAVs could monitor the condition and boundaries of watersheds and sample air quality at various altitudes.
  • Fish, wildlife and plant management: UAVs could help map habitats and survey fish and wildlife populations. They could also monitor the populations of threatened and endangered fish, wildlife and plant species.
  • Law enforcement: Authorities could use UAVs to help detect activities like narcotics production and timber theft.
  • Post-fire response: UAVs could help map burn severity, evaluate debris flow and monitor vegetation recovery and ongoing flooding threats to downstream communities.
The Forest Service does not have a formal program in place for using UAVs, but it does have a working group looking at how it could use the systems. There could be advantages in terms of cost, safety and flying in locations and under conditions where manned aircraft couldn’t be used.


The Forest Service is not the only agency that’s moving slowly on the use of UAVs. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) has tested them in partnership with other agencies to see if they give commanders better real-time information about fires. But Cal Fire has no plans to use unmanned aircraft regularly, though it continues to evaluate them. “We’re constantly looking at new technology,” said Lynne Tolmachoff, a spokesperson for Cal Fire.

One agency that has been using UAVs for several years is the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado. The program has flown more than 55 missions, totaling more than 225 flight hours.



A Multitude of Uses

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have a number of potential uses for emergency response and public safety:

Search and rescue A UAV “can search a very large area very accurately and quickly,” said Todd Sedlak, director of sales and flight operations and small UAS subject matter expert for Detroit Aircraft. This can be particularly helpful for water rescue, since a warm body in cold water shows up quickly on thermal cameras. In the mountains after an avalanche, a UAV can search in conditions where it’s too dangerous to send a manned aircraft. “An aircraft will search every square inch that you tell it to,” he said. “It will never get tired; it will never get bored.”

Situational awareness for first responders “Let’s say a SWAT team has to serve a high-risk warrant — they have the ability to have a good view of the neighborhood, and if a suspect were to flee, where they’re going,” Sedlak said.

Traffic control UAVs can help authorities see where traffic is backing up during a major event like a football game, or to get an aerial view of the aftermath of a traffic accident. A UAV is “a low-cost, safe and easy-to-use alternative to anything that police are already using helicopters for,” Sedlak said.

Firefighting A UAV with a thermal camera can show whether the roof of a building has fire underneath it — a faster and safer way to make this determination than having a firefighter climb on the roof and use a hammer to find soft spots. It also can help determine what other buildings are at risk based on the wind speed and direction. In a forest fire, a UAV’s camera can see through the forest canopy to show where fire is spreading below. “This is already being done with manned aircraft,” said Sedlak. “This is cheaper, faster and safer.”         

The sheriff’s office first acquired an unmanned helicopter in 2009 and worked with the FAA to get a certificate of authorization that would allow the department to fly it. By the fall of 2010, the sheriff’s office had FAA permission to use the system anywhere in the county during the day, and it expanded its tests and started using the UAV to help other agencies with aerial photos during the response to events like fires and fatal traffic accidents.

In 2012, the department tested a fixed-wing UAV, which has a longer flight time than the helicopter and could be used for more searches or fire monitoring over larger areas. Now the department is beginning to use the systems for day-to-day operations.

One of the advantages UAVs offer public safety and emergency management officials is that they can see areas that are otherwise inaccessible because of the danger to human pilots. Another big advantage is cost.

Mesa County officials estimate that the UAVs they use would cost between $25,000 and $50,000 each. (They have spent much less because they have partnerships with the manufacturers to help test the systems.) Larger systems would cost even more.

However, the costs are still much less than for flying manned aircraft. Mesa County officials project that the long-term operating costs of their UAVs is about $25 per hour. Planes and helicopters with pilots can cost between $400 and $1,200 per hour to operate.


If UAVs provide
such great help to public safety agencies at such a low cost, why aren’t they being more quickly adopted? There are several uncertainties and concerns regarding their use, and these have slowed some agencies’ efforts.

One issue is safety. UAVs are considered aircraft, and some can be quite large. This is one issue that the Forest Service’s advisory group is looking at, Jones said. “Our top priority in the Forest Service is safety,” she said. That includes the safety of firefighters and other agency employees, as well as the safety of the public.

“They can pose a risk to people on the ground if one of those is flying overhead and a communications link is lost,” said Jones. “We’ve got to make sure that we can fly them safely, given the other aircraft that are often flying in fire environments.”

There are other details to be worked out, as well, Jones said. “We’re trying to define the mission requirements.” A lot of missions can also be performed by manned aircraft, and the agency wants to determine when officials would turn to UAVs and who would operate them.

There’s also some uncertainty about how UAVs will ultimately be regulated. Private citizens can buy and operate their own UAVs as a hobby, with few restrictions from the FAA as long as they are not flown too high or too close to an airport. The FAA hasn’t issued specific regulations about when UAVs can be used by people who are being paid to operate them, however. The FAA is working on rules that would allow commercial use of certain UAVs in some circumstances.

Public agencies are able to get a certificate of authorization from the FAA to use unmanned aircraft under certain circumstances. But these can take a long time to receive, so most agencies can’t simply buy a UAV and start using it.

Another big concern is privacy. The Seattle Police Department last year abandoned a program to use UAVs while it was still in the planning and testing phase because of public concerns about privacy. It ended up giving the UAVs to the Los Angeles Police Department, which has said it won’t use them until the city decides on terms for their implementation into operations.

A number of states have passed or are considering laws that would limit the ways law enforcement could use UAVs, such as requiring a warrant for many uses.

Although UAVs may be sent to photograph wildfires and storms in situations where sending a manned aircraft is too dangerous, in urban settings most of what they are documenting could also be photographed by manned aircraft. The concerns raised by privacy advocates stem from their low cost and ease of use: If UAVs can be operated cheaply and easily, what is to prevent law enforcement from conducting constant surveillance?

“Our main concern is the suspicion-less use for mass surveillance,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Program of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the ACLU is not opposed to all uses of UAVs. “I don’t think anybody objects to the use of a drone to find a lost child in the woods. Or if the police are raiding a crime kingpin’s home and want some aerial support and have a warrant to raid the home, we wouldn’t object to that. We just want to put in place some commonsense checks and balances.”

There are also questions about what secondary uses of the video are acceptable, Stanley said. For example, what if authorities collect video of a large area to assess damage after an earthquake but later decide to examine the footage to look for evidence of people growing marijuana? That could provide evidence that in other situations they would have needed a warrant to collect.

A final hurdle for some agencies is the rapid development of the technology, which can make decisions difficult.

“Every year something new and better is coming out,” said Tolmachoff of Cal Fire. “We’re looking at all avenues. We’re still researching and trying to figure out which one will work best for our department.”

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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