Unmanned Aircraft Systems Considerations for Law Enforcement Action

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Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or drones, are aircraft without a human pilot onboard that are controlled by an operator remotely or programmed to fly autonomously.

While UAS in and of themselves are benign, negligent, reckless, want only dangerous, or nefarious use can seriously threaten the personal safety of emergency services personnel and the public, as well as obstruct law enforcement operations.

When law enforcement action is taken against UAS and their operators, state, local, tribal, and territorial law enforcement personnel need to be aware of several Federal statutes that that can affect their engagement, in addition to being familiar with the technical nature of UAS.

UAS can be in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing configurations with one or multiple propellers or jet motors to provide propulsion. UAS are either electrically powered with an onboard battery or contain a small internal combustion engine.

Background

UAS can be in both fixed-wing and rotary-wing configurations with one or multiple propellers or jet motors to provide propulsion. UAS are either electrically powered with an onboard battery or contain a small internal combustion engine. They can range in weight from a few ounces to over 50 pounds, and range in size from a few inches to several feet across. The operational ceiling for UAS varies between a few feet to over a thousand feet, and have a flight time from only a few minutes to over 30 minutes for electrically powered models and over an hour for internal combustion-powered models. Many UAS are available with an integrated camera and the ability to stream live video and audio via Bluetooth.

Today, the U.S. Department of Defense currently operates more than 11,000 UAS,1 and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimated 2.5 million private UAS sales in the U.S. in 2016 with that number expected to rise to 7 million by 2020.

Legal Considerations

Prior to taking action against either a UAS, whether in flight or not, or a possible operator of a UAS, it is recommended that every law enforcement agency develop plans and procedures detailing the actions of their personnel and consult legal counsel to verify the legality of those actions. Some specific Federal statutes to consider include:

• Sovereignty and Use of Airspace3

• Aircraft Piracy4

• Destruction of Aircraft or Aircraft Facilities5

• Aiming a Laser Pointer at an Aircraft6

• Interception and Disclosure of Wire, Oral, or Electronic Communications Prohibited7

• General Prohibition on Pen Register and Trap and Trace Device Use8

• Emergency Pen Register and Trap and Trace Device Installation

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