By Ryder Smith for MISAC.

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are pretty cool. They help us soar like a bird. We can watch them race on ESPN. They provide visuals of nature or our cities that we have not had in the past. And, as technologists, it is simply a stunning array of technology packed into a small form factor. Consider that the latest DJI Mavic Pro drone contains GPS, advanced battery technologies, proximity sensors, a 4K camera and HD quality video streaming for a three-mile distance—and folds up to a package that fits into a back pocket!

This cool technology is being leveraged by cities in numerous ways. UAVs are used for economic development to promote the town in videos or provide aerial photography of properties and development opportunities. Public safety has started using UAVs to provide close proximity reconnaissance, particularly in volatile situations.

The City of Torrance has been one of the leading police departments to begin leveraging drones in their policing activities. Indeed, they have setup a drone team within the police department and have trained six officers to operate the drones as a resource for the department. Each of these officers has achieved their FAA Part 107 license.

“Torrance Police Department sees immense value in UAV technology that can increase officer safety, make us more productive and result in greater public safety. Adoption of UAVs is going to be similar to adoption of license plate readers or body cameras: the technology is here to help and police departments will seek to use it,” said Sergeant Ronald Harris, Public Information Officer for the City of Torrance Police Department.

Torrance PD, so far, has used UAVs for post-event investigations and crime scene photography. Prior to having access to a UAV for photography, they would rely on a ladder truck from the Fire Department to get a high vantage point for a photographer. Now it is as simple as pulling out a UAV: five minutes and it’s done. The police see other uses for UAVs, including perimeter searches and search and rescue operations. Having access to a UAV alternative can not only save money, but also alleviate a dependency on helicopter services from partner agencies.

Continued Sergeant Harris, “Society continues to incorporate new technology into everyday practices, and police departments should be innovating to incorporate these technologies, too. Police use of UAVs is going to increase public and police safety and enhance our ability to locate suspects, find evidence, coordinate hazmat scene response and much more.”

Neighboring Redondo Police Department, also UAV users, recently put their drone preparation to the test in a standoff situation. After a long, slow chase, a car was immobilized with a dangerous suspect inside. Police used a UAV to look into the vehicle to determine if it was safe for officers to approach. It was the first time the Department had deployed a drone in that type of situation.

UAVs are simple to carry in a trunk, can deploy in a few minutes and provide instant feedback, noted Lee Pratt, IT Manager for the City of Fountain Valley. Scenarios he cited where a drone can prove helpful, include the following:

  • Showing scale at large community events is tough, but a UAV at 200 feet taking pictures can really tell the story. As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.
  • In some SWAT situations it is important to assess the rooftop of the building that is being breeched. This is sometimes accomplished with either a helicopter flyover or a ladder from a fire truck. But a UAV from the trunk of a squad car can be up and running nearly on demand and provide real-time visuals to the team on the ground.
  • Swift-water search and rescue, particularly in urban areas, is tough with a helicopter, but a UAV can provide all the advantage of a helicopter and cover a huge amount of territory more quickly and with less noise and interruption to people in the area.

By default, public agency staff turn to their IT department when it comes to leveraging drones because it is a “technology”. Thus, the IT manager is thrown in the position of either needing to know enough to offer guidance to staff on drone usage or come up with a solution for the agency.

“Drones not only provide benefits for public safety, but they also play a role in economic development. In Fountain Valley, we have images and video taken from drones that have been used to promote achievements in the community or highlight great public services,” noted Pratt. “City IT managers are often the first stop for the city manager or police chief when they start thinking about new technologies to implement, and that was the case here in Fountain Valley.”

Fountain Valley’s homepage features several aerial images that highlight community events or public infrastructure. The City also has a police recruitment video and a City Staff recruitment video that feature drone footage.

“Cities are all about place, and an aerial image of your community can create a sense of place like nothing else. It is powerful,” declared Pratt.

While it’s understood that drones can be helpful to a public agency, there are policy challenges introduced by their use. The ability for amateurs to take flight has, in a few cases, endangered fire crews as they fought wildfire blazes. In San Bernardino, in 2015, a fire tanker was grounded for 25 minutes after a drone were spotted in the area trying to capture imagery of the fire.

A statement released by the U.S. Forest Service stated after the incident noted:

As hobby drones have grown in popularity, we have seen an increase in these drones interfering with firefighting operations. A collision could easily result in major damage to our aircraft, injuries to the pilot and crew on board as well as firefighters below, and worse, a midair collision.

When drones interfere with firefighting efforts, a wildfire has the potential to grow larger and cause more damage. On most wildfires, an FAA Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) is put into effect and any private aircraft or drone that violates the TFR could face serious criminal charges. 

Even without a TFR, anyone who hampers firefighting efforts could face charges as well.

The issues raised with drone use create a mashup of public policy issues with jurisdiction authority questions, safety concerns, privacy considerations and commercial aviation complications.  D. Damon Willens, a drone law expert and Chair of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Practice Group at Anderson, McPharlin & Conners LLP in Los Angeles sees both sides of these issues as both a commercial UAS pilot and LAPD reserve police officer.

“The problem is that federal, state and local authorities all want to regulate UAS use,” said Willens. “The technology has moved forward much faster than the ability of government to enact reasonable and common-sense regulations. Often, municipalities do not understand the various complex issues involved and the importance of having solid policies and procedures in place that do not infringe on the FAA’s authority to regulate airspace but still allow for resolution of local issues. Especially for public use, it is important to understand the different options available to municipalities and how they can be tailored to comply with all applicable laws while still meeting their needs.”

The National League of Cities has developed a model ordinance on this matter to help guide cities on the policy development front. The policy seeks to balance the need for public safety with the opportunity to allow innovative use of UAVs to enhance the lives of everyone, much as they are proving useful in the scenarios cited above. The League of California Cities has also recently published an extensive white paper on these issues and has extensive resources on its website:

Using drones as a public agency is not to be taken lightly. There are serious legal and financial considerations that need to come up when discussing their use. The following list of considerations could be helpful discussion points regarding UAV use by your public agency:

  • Insurance – Do we have the right kind of insurance or do we need to find special insurance?
  • Licensing – If someone on our team is flying a UAV to get footage for use by the public agency, do they need to be properly licensed by the FAA (Part 107 License)? If so, who is getting licensed and does that make sense from an economic perspective?
  • Flight Area – Do we know where we can fly? Are we in an airport flight path that poses risks? A key part of FAA guidelines is not to fly in certain restricted areas or to file a flight plan in some areas that are less restricted. Still others require no plan whatsoever. Use of tools like AirMap can be beneficial in these scenarios.
  • Asset Control – Are we going to buy a UAV? Where will it be stored? Who will have access? Do we need 24-7 availability and response for the UAV operator?
  • Data Collection – Do we have data collection and retention policies to protect against claims of privacy invasion?

As attorney Willens noted, “Commercial use of UAS, especially by municipalities, has really only developed over the past couple of years.  It is an evolving and unsettled process but when the kinks are worked out, UAVs are going to have public benefits that have not yet even been considered.  Until then, it certainly would be a good idea to consult with your respective law enforcement agencies, city attorney and risk management personnel, and experts in public drone use and law to determine how to best set up your own particular program to meet your needs.”

Cities are approaching these questions in a mixed way. Some, like Torrance, embrace it and make significant investments. Some, like Brea, contract for drone services using a properly insured and licensed commercial operator. Others use a “hobbyist” approach, where a member of the staff donates some time and a drone to capture imagery that get incorporated into the city’s visual assets. MISAC members are uniquely positioned to be helpful resources inside their organizations to advise peers on the value and risks associated with this fascinating technology.

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Key Resource Links:

League of California Cities Policies on UAVs:

National League of Cities Policy on UAVs:


Federal Aviation Administration UAV Page:

HansonBridgett Drone Law site:

Anderson, McPharlin & Conners Drone Law Articles: