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How UAS can assist during hostage negotiation, barricaded subject situations

12 Feb 2019 2:21 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

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

By Thomas Margetta, Member of IPSA’s UAS Committee

The use of unmanned aerial systems in law enforcement and public safety applications is quickly gaining in adoption and will continue far into the foreseeable future. According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College estimates, as of May 2018, there were at least 910 state and local police, sheriff and emergency services agencies in the U.S. that have already acquired UAS. Initial applications of the use of UAS range from search and rescue, suspect pursuit and traffic accident investigations to SWAT operations. Key benefits, including tactical aerial support and situational awareness, provide agencies with many operational advantages like manned aircraft, but with greater maneuverability and safety without the associated high costs. While most UAS law enforcement applications generally refer to overhead tactical support use outdoors, one lesser known operational benefit is how UAS can assist during hostage negotiation and/or barricaded subject situations.

UAS equipment

Law enforcement personnel who are experienced in working with UAS understand how critical it is to match the UAS and associated equipment with the right operation. This may include inherent capabilities of the UAS such as flight time, wind rating, weather, imaging payload, battery change capabilities, communication and control software. For example, UAS equipment required for a search and rescue operation over expansive, rugged terrain at night may be quite different than one used to take detailed aerial photography over a traffic homicide scene. Similarly, UAS used for hostage and/or barricaded subject situations also requires forethought in selecting the proper equipment for proper tactical support.

One example of this occurred in 2013, when a suspect shot a school bus driver and held a 5-year-old boy captive for nearly a week in an underground bunker in Midland City, Alabama. The FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team flew UAS over the scene to provide aerial intelligence while they snuck a camera into the bunker to build a replica to practice their assault for entry. In what Clint Van Zandt, former FBI negotiator, described as, “A classic, textbook situation,” the team exchanged gunfire with the suspect and killed him before rescuing the child. 

Tactical UAS considerations

Some general requirements of tactical UAS to be considered may include:

  • The capability to operate both outdoors and inside GPS-denied environments.
  • A smaller size to navigate through windows, breach points or tight interiors.
  • Two-way communications.
  • Night vision or thermal imaging capabilities.
  • Lighter weight for increased flight times.
  • Ruggedness/durability to withstand impacts.
  • Most importantly, officer/pilot and team safety features.

To prepare for a multitude of variables that can occur during a hostage and/or barricaded subject situation, a law enforcement agency must ensure they have the right UAS and associated features and communications capabilities for the operations they will be called to respond to.

Once the right equipment with associated features and communications are selected, examples of how a UAS may be used include:

  • Breaches/primary entry and room clearing. Officer safety and operational efficiency is critical.  Once a breach is made, the UAS can act as a room clearing device leading the way for team clearing operations. For example, the pilot position may be 2nd in a stack, while the team leader may wear a wrist worn device to view video from the UAS. Safety is greatly enhanced while clearing fatal funnels such as stairwells or tight long hallways or when visually inspecting for bombs and traps. A qualified indoor pilot can clear an entire 10,000 square foot office space in approximately 10 minutes. Clearing offices, office cubicles, bathroom stalls and visually looking under and over furniture or around corners is much faster and safer than traditional methods such as when using mirrors.   

  • Mapping, monitoring and observation. Once an area is cleared, one or more UAS can be used to monitor cleared areas. Armed with the right software, the UAS may also be utilized to map the layout or perch silently under furniture or on a high vantage point to look for and/or monitor suspects and their movements.         
  • Two-way communications. Two-way communications may be in the form of two-way voice between the negotiator and the suspect. Instead of using a telephone thrown to the suspect at a distance away, a UAS equipped with two-way voice and mic/speaker can be flown near and used for safer communications with the suspect(s). At the same time, the camera on the UAS can gain potential valuable intelligence such as the number of suspects, health of any hostages, weapons or other crucial information.

  • Greenlight go tactical weapon. Depending on state and local laws, UAS may also be utilized to deploy concussion grenades or chemical irritants, providing the advantage of surprise while increasing officer safety. Additionally, several UAS may operate in a coordinated attack on multiple suspects.  Soon, evolving UAS swarm technology and micro-UAS may be utilized as tactical weapons.

In summary, UAS are gaining in adoption and use for law enforcement. It is critical to understand that matching the right UAS and associated equipment, communications and software with the right objectives and tactical operations will help ensure successful outcomes. For hostage negotiation and/or barricaded subject situations, specialized indoor UAS, associated equipment, two-way communications and software should be considered to ensure law enforcement is prepared to handle these situations while providing greater officer and hostage safety and increasing operational efficiency.

About the Author

Thomas Margetta is the Director of Client Services for STRAX Intelligence Group, who’s STRAX® Platform provides aerial intelligence and real-time situational awareness solutions for public safety. The Florida-based company manufactures the SABER® Close Quarters Tactical Indoor UAS. He is in the 27th year of his 9-1-1 career supporting law enforcement. An inaugural IPSA UAS Committee member, he may be contacted at

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