Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Law Enforcement

DFR’s “secret sauce” is the creation of a new policing position; the Teleoperator, who monitors holding and incoming calls for service, deploys the drone when necessary.
Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)

Small, remotely operated Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also commonly referred to as drones, are an effective way of providing law enforcement critical information to respond to calls for service and emergency situations, or to conduct criminal investigations. Some use cases include:

  • Better situational awareness of an incident which increases citizen and officer safety
  • Safely clearing the interior and exterior of buildings
  • Providing detailed documentation of crime and accident scenes
  • Searching for lost or missing persons

Over the past ten (10) years, and in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), law enforcement agencies throughout the United States have piloted new innovative use of drones to increase public safety and improve operations.

Government agencies (including Federal, State, and tribal), law enforcement, and public safety entities have two options for operating drones under 55 pounds.

  • Fly under 14 CFR part 107, the small UAS rule. Part 107 allows operations of drones or unmanned aircraft system (UAS) under 55 pounds at or below 400 feet above ground level (AGL) for visual line-of-sight operations only.
  • Fly under the statutory requirements for public aircraft (49 U.S.C. §40102(a) and § 40125). Operate with a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to be able to self-certify UAS and operators for flights performing governmental functions.

** To support first responders and other entities affiliated with them, the FAA can quickly issue authorizations for natural disasters and other emergency responses.

Innovative Leaders in the UAS Space

The Chula Vista Police Department (CVPD) in California (under the leadership of Chief Roxana Kennedy) is a leader in the innovative use of drones in law enforcement. CVPD launched the “Drone as First Responder” (DFR) program in 2017 following two years of community engagement and policy study. This innovative program was a first in the nation.

What is Drone as First Responder (DFR) program?

Drone as First Responder (DFR) program is an innovative and transformative use of UAS developed and implemented by the CVPD, Cape Aerial Telepresence (a private UAS teleoperation company – now Motorola Solutions) and the San Diego City Integration Pilot Project (IPP) Team. The concept was to utilize a UAS to fly to any reported incident and arrive prior to first responders on the ground.

The video feed from the UAS is viewed at the police department by a trained first responder teleoperator (TO). The TO is able to operate the UAS remotely and immediately communicate with field personnel via radio. The TO is able to evaluate the scene and circumstances before arriving field units and provide necessary tactical information to help them stay safe and increase efficiency. The video feed is also immediately available to every officer in the field via a smart phone/device application, where officers and fire personnel can see the situation for response planning.

When do Chula Vista Police use UAS?

The CVPD use UAS in a variety of circumstances such as documenting crime and accident scenes, searching for missing or wanted persons, fires, and evaluating damage after a major incident or natural disasters. The CVPD UAS Team was also part of an FAA initiative (UAS Integration Pilot Project, or IPP), that encouraged public agencies and private companies to partner in using UAS in innovative ways to serve the community and evaluate the integration of UAS into the National Air Space (NAS).

The UAS are launched from the roof of the police department and fly toward the scene of incidents such as a crime in progress, serious accident, officer in need of assistance, or any other call for service where advance knowledge of what is happening at the scene before police and fire first responders arrive may add to safety and efficiency.

Winbourne Consulting Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Law EnforcementPolice Departments, with limited resources and personnel, often find they are sending uniformed officers to every reported incident with little time to problem-solve prior to arrival. Call-takers in dispatch centers barely have time to keep up with the incoming calls for service. DFR’s “secret sauce” is the creation of a new policing position; the Teleoperator, who monitors holding and incoming calls for service, deploys the drone when necessary. DFR is not just a technical solution using a drone, but a tactical solution utilizing a trained incident manager.

The idea to utilize a drone as first responder was born out of a tragic shooting of an unarmed man with a history of mental illness that occurred in a neighboring city and resulted in violent community protests. Would the ability to have eyes-on this incident before uniformed officers arrived have prevented this?

When members of the CVPD UAS Team were introduced to the unique drone software by Cape Aerial Telepresence in early 2017, they realized the software features that include low latency HD video, geofencing, and remote operation capability could support the insertion of drones into an incident response.

Coincidentally, in October 2017, the Federal DOT and FAA proposed a nationwide Integration Pilot Project (IPP) to encourage the private sector to partner with public agencies to find unique concept of operations (CONOPS) or use-cases for drones to accelerate the integration of drones in the (NAS). The San Diego IPP Team (including a public safety CONOPS) was awarded one of ten coveted pilot programs.

In March of 2018, CVPD was approved by the FAA to fly beyond visual line of site (BVLOS), allowing much greater coverage from each launch location. This FAA approval was the first for any public safety agency serving an urban environment in the nation. As of July 5, 2022, CVPD has produced the following flight statistics for their UAS program:

Hopefully, this information has helped your agency understand the benefits and use cases for UAS operations.

How can Winbourne Consulting help your agency?

Winbourne Consulting is available to assist any agency with:

  • Program implementation assessments
  • Improving the continuity of executive level visibility of the project
  • Developing an ongoing strategic vision for a program
  • Program vendor management during implementation
  • Enhancing the messaging of the program both internal and external
  • Framing community outreach in support of the program
  • Providing resource relief so fulltime personnel can spend more time on primary duties.

Chula Vista Police Department UAS website:

Kirby Beyer is a Senior Consultant with Winbourne Consulting and a retired Assistant Sheriff from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Kirby can be reached at

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