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Law Enforcement Response to Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Incidents

Law Enforcement Response to Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Incidents

by Ron Leach - Vice Chairman ULTRA

UAS or more commonly referred to as “drones” are now part of our lives in one fashion or another and many don’t even realize it. The aircraft portion of the UAS is what most people are familiar with when in fact all associated components of the UAS such as the controlling station, cameras and other parts are also part of the entire “system”. Public opinion is actively being molded into acceptance of this technology by exciting news stories about packages being delivered to your doorstep, life-saving organ transplants sent to operating facilities, and burritos delivered to you at the beach. Drones flying through your neighborhood will soon become the norm soon.

So, what happens when someone complains to law enforcement about a drone operator flying too close to a house or property? This discussion will not include the property owner’s airspace rights since there are no clearly defined laws that have been tested in the Courts like other boundaries have.

· The responding law enforcement officer must meet with the person making the complaint about the activity and understand what the concern may be.

· Is the drone being operated in a careless or reckless manner?

· Is the drone being used to look over privacy partitions or look into windows?

· Has the person making the complaint approached the operator to discuss the matter?

The mere presence of a drone flying is not necessarily violating Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), a violation of an ordinance or State law.

We expect a lot from our first responders but unfortunately, officer exposure to drone activity is still unfolding. Most responding officers will most likely not understand what rules apply to drone operations. Future recommendations for implementing officer training regarding what appropriate actions to take when investigating drone complaints will be discussed in a later post.

So, for now, we go back to the original premise of this post. If we think about why an officer may be called to a particular complaint, the answer should be broken down into its basic form. What exactly is the issue? The drone being used in a nefarious manner is merely a tool to further the activity. There are laws against peeping Toms, assault, harassment and other similar activities.

If a person intentionally flies his drone at his neighbor and hits her with it causing injury, he has committed an assault. Depending on the severity of the injury sustained, the person would also face charges for violating the FARs. The officer taking the report would handle the incident just as any other assault noting that the weapon used in this case was a drone.

The information taken at the scene should include all personally identifying details of the neighbor in addition to noting the serial number of the aircraft and controller portions of the UAS system. Good police work should tie the neighbor to the operation of the drone either through witnesses, fingerprints, or other investigative means. The UAS and all associated system components would be seized as evidence and photographed just like any other assault.

While the officer may not know it at the time, the very information collected in an investigative report would be all the information that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would need to proceed with an investigation for any violation of the FARs. The FAA has dedicated agents that are assigned to provide information and guidance to law enforcement through the Law Enforcement Assistance Program (LEAP). Although their resources are stretched a little thin, LEAP agents provide law enforcement partners with a wealth of information and are a valuable resource when developing training programs for officers.

See more information regarding the FAA LEAP program.

Professionals using drones for real estate inspections, surveys, photography, or other jobs should be drone brand ambassadors when they are in the field conducting flights. While not required, reaching out to the local law enforcement station would help lower the concern if notified ahead of time. By building these relationships before an operator speaks with an officer in the field, will go a long way in facilitating acceptance of the job requirements.

Another suggestion is to wear high visibility company vests that have logos that are clean and clearly visible. When approached by a neighborhood resident, be courteous and respectful and try to educate the homeowner on what you are doing. You may even get additional business out of this. The ability to educate those around you will go a long way in developing acceptance of drone use in the future. Unfortunately, sometimes people can be unreasonable, and this is when law enforcement gets involved. Proactively establishing conversations ahead of time will put you in a better position when/if this occurs.

The future of unmanned flight is expanding and will not only include small UAS, but taxi services and even medical transportation is on the horizon. ULTRA will be advocating for this exciting new iteration of aviation since space travel! In only 116 years, the human race transitioned from being bonded to the earth to putting the ability to fly in the hands of practically everyone!

Stay tuned to future ULTRA posts that will provide commentary and resources for developing UAS programs. ULTRA information here…….

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