A suspected theft of cows in North Dakota has become the genesis for a new pilot program aimed at making it easier for local police agencies to win approval to operate unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The University of North Dakota (UND) is launching an unusual joint program with the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department that they hope will establish a template for law-enforcement use of UAS. Planned to begin in early October, pending FAA approvals, the program will see UND Aviation Department personnel operating up to four small fixed- and rotary-wing UAS in support of the police anywhere within 16 counties in northeast North Dakota. Supported by a university grant and industry donations, the research will determine the applicability and feasibility of using small UAS for law enforcement and develop an operating concept for police departments, says Alan Frazier, assistant professor at UND.

A key element of the program involves obtaining certificates of authorization (COA) from the FAA allowing the university to operate the small UAS on behalf of the police during the day, at or below 400-ft. altitude, anywhere in the 16-county area. This approach, already pioneered in Colorado by the Mesa County Sheriff's Department, should make it easier to get approval to operate UAS compared with the current process of applying to the FAA for an emergency COA for a specific mission.

The joint program was sparked by a 2010 incident in which Grand Forks police called in support from a Customs and Border Patrol General Atomics Predator B UAS to assist with the arrest of a heavily armed farmer suspected of stealing cows. “We tried to get an emergency COA to assist the sheriff based on the university's existing COAs, but the FAA balked, saying it was not acceptable to use our UAS to support a law-enforcement agency,” says Frazier.

But that changed in February, when Congress directed the FAA to open national airspace to UAS by the end of 2015. The move has sparked debate about whether the use of such systems by law enforcement threatens individual privacy (AW&ST Aug. 6, p. 49). In August, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted guidelines for the responsible use of UAS. “The more the law-enforcement community, privacy advocates, government and other stakeholders work together to address issues such as privacy, the faster we can unlock the potential,” says Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Under the new program in North Dakota, the county Sheriff's Department has applied for four COAs covering two different types of UAS operated by UND: a 4.2-lb. hand-launched, fixed-wing AeroVironment Raven; and a 3.3-lb. hexrotor Draganflyer X6. Two COAs, covering small areas needed for training, have been granted, and flight demonstrations required for FAA approval of the operational COAs are planned for mid-September.

UND, meanwhile, is adding an AeroVironment Qube 5.5-lb. quadrotor and a hand-launched Micro-UAS made by Goodrich (now part of United Technologies), which it plans to make available to the Sheriff's Department. “We are adding them to expand the depth of our research,” says Frazier. “We intend to be candid on the capabilities and limitations of UAS, and part of our agreement with the manufacturers is that we will be an objective third party in saying whether a UAS is appropriate for this type of mission.”

Under the joint effort, university pilots will operate the UAS while UND-trained police officers will act as sensor system operators and visual observers. “They will help clear airspace and provide connectivity to deputies and officers,” he says. Law-enforcement officers will also be responsible for securing search warrants where required and for safeguarding the chain of evidence. “After landing, our pilot will take an SD [data] card out of the aircraft and hand it to the deputy or officer, who will take over the chain of custody,” he says.

For the research program, the UAS will be stored in an unmarked sport utility vehicle parked at a central location. Officers requiring UAS support will call central dispatch, which will page the on-call operator to collect the vehicle and drive to the location. Ultimately, Frazier sees law-enforcement UAS deployment being modeled on K-9 police-dog operations, with specially trained officers patrolling in vehicles carrying a UAS and able to respond at short notice.

UND's research will result in three main products, says Frazier: a template for UAS operations; a policies and procurement manual; and a white paper on the suitability of fixed- versus rotary-wing UAS for specific missions. “This is akin to a kick start, to move the technology ahead and help law enforcement decide whether to establish their own UAS units,” he says.