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What to consider before starting a new public safety UAS program

12 Feb 2019 2:03 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

Editor's note: This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s UAS eBook

By Bill Pritchett, Member of IPSA’s UAS Committee

The use of aerial support is not a new concept in public safety. Helicopters have proven to be a successful tool to aid emergency response personnel with aerial policing and search and rescue operations. Many law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department, have had air support divisions for more than 60 years. Unfortunately, the price makes it unattainable for smaller public safety departments to utilize.

UAS benefits

Unmanned aircraft systems are changing that. Technological advancements and the relatively low cost of these aircraft has made offering aerial support a reality in many communities. UAS are a less expensive alternative to a full-scale helicopter, and they can quickly be deployed from nearly any site. This capability makes them crucial in providing real-time situational awareness to commanding officers at a scene.

Cameras currently used on UAS can stream live 4K video footage to the ground, as well as take high-resolution pictures at a scene. Thermal imaging and GPS are also available and frequently used to aid crews in search and rescue and firefighting operations.

As UAS technology evolves, so will its use in public safety. Larger emergency agencies, such as the New York Fire Department, now deploy UAS to large, four-alarm fires. They clearly offer public safety departments the option to protect their communities in ways that they previously could not.

UAS applications

Using a UAS during an emergency provides incredibly helpful live data to incident command, which can lead to better, faster and safer decisions—ultimately saving lives and property and keeping first responders out of harm’s way. Perhaps the most critical domain for UAS use is in areas in which the assignment poses a significant risk to human life.

Explosive ordnance disposal is a prime example. According to the 2007 U.S. Department of Defense Unmanned Systems Roadmap report, coalition forces in Iraq neutralized more than 11,100 improvised explosive devices from 2003 to 2007. From 2004 to 2007, the number of EOD unmanned vehicles deployed in Iraq rose from 162 to more than 4,000. They were, without doubt, responsible for saving thousands of lives.

Dangerous job assignments are not limited to the military. The inspection of structures such as bridges, radio towers, wind turbines and oil rigs depend heavily on visual assessments from experienced field inspectors. Visual inspections of bridges and high-mast structures often require inspectors to be placed in high-risk settings, working at altitudes greater than 1,700 feet, or being suspended beneath bridges. This technology is ideal for taking the inspector out of danger and gaining new perspective on otherwise dangerous places to reach.

In the event of an emergency, UAS are an important tool for first responders. Every day, firefighters, law enforcement officers, SWAT teams and many others use UAS to survey areas that would be difficult or dangerous to survey on foot.

Getting started with UAS

Under the small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Rule (Part 107), pilots must pass an aeronautical knowledge test to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate. FAA knowledge testing centers charge approximately $150 to take the initial aeronautical knowledge test. Keeping your license current requires testing every two years from the last day of the month of the initial test. It’s a difficult test. Someone with no aviation background will likely need to enroll in a course to prepare for the test.

Federal law requires that all aircraft (which includes sUAS and radio/remote-controlled aircraft) flown outdoors be registered with the FAA and marked with a registration number. Any sUAS weighing more than 0.55 pound and less than 55 pounds can be registered online at

UAS flown for work or business (commercially) must be registered individually by the owner. Each registration costs $5. Each registrant must supply his or her name, address and email address, in addition to the make, model and serial number (if available) for each sUAS that the pilot wants to fly.

UAS and safety

Once the pilot takes the course, passes the test, and has everything registered this makes him or her legal, but not safe. Executing a successful (safe) commercial operation for public safety, building inspection, aerial photography, videography or other flight mission requires actual flying skills. Just because a pilot has figured out how to take off, fly around a parking lot and land does not give him or her the necessary skills to fly commercially.

Flying publicly means flying near other people, over someone else’s property and/or under the ever-watchful eye of the FAA and the public. Flying skills such as these require training from professionals who have done it thousands of times without incident. There is an initial and continual need for UAS hands-on training for all pilots.

UAS programmatic planning, cost

All agencies must plan for success by budgeting for great equipment and training. Ask around because there are but a handful of manufacturers’ products universally recommended for use in public safety. Budget for training. Be proactive in the development of your department’s deployment procedure, training recurrence and equipment maintenance and management.

One item to be aware of is cost. There is no question that a single UAS is substantially less expensive than deploying a full-scale helicopter at a rate of $1,000 per hour. However, do not try to compare a real public safety UAS deployment budget with what anyone can buy a single UAS for at any local retail store. Anticipate several other line items in the UAS programmatic budget – not just the cost of the technology – and plan for those items accordingly.

About the Author

Bill Pritchett is the Director of Education for the Academy of Model Aeronautics. He has 40 years of experience as an educator. A graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, he received his undergraduate degree in education in 1976 and a master’s degree in 1981. Bill is an RC Precision Aerobatics national champion and continues to fly and participate in competitive model aviation Precision Aerobatics events. 

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