Police drones — once the stuff of science fiction — will soon take flight over Long Island.
Both the Nassau and Suffolk County police departments say they expect to use unmanned aerial systems, commonly known as UAS, to carry out a host of midair missions in the near future.
Potential uses include assisting officers in tactical situations, such as hostage standoffs; aiding in search and rescue efforts to find missing children; and photographing crime and crash scenes, officials said.
Nassau owns one commercial drone and is working to comply with FAA regulations before putting it into service, department officials said. Suffolk police said they plan to purchase their own UAS and are researching available models.
Acting Nassau Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter said drones “will have a positive impact and [are] a great tool for the law enforcement community.”
“Whether it be looking for a missing person, assessing a crime scene or using it for a hostage barricade situation, its usefulness will be unparalleled,” he added.
UAS used by cops can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $15,000, officials said, and are available online. Nassau’s drone is a DJI Inspire 1. The police department paid about $4,500, which included additional controllers and a hard case.
Nassau and Suffolk say drones are valuable crime-fighting machines for the digital age — the aircraft are small, light and fast enough to carry out investigations and searches in ways neither humans nor traditional aircraft can.
But civil liberties groups say they’re worried the systems will be used to skirt privacy laws and conduct warrantless surveillance from above.
Jason Starr, Long Island director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said there need to be safeguards put in place — including internal policies that dictate when and where police drones can fly — before local cops deploy them.
“The growing use of drone technology raises serious and novel threats to personal privacy,” Starr said. “Surveillance of all kinds demands meaningful, enforceable privacy protections . . . New Yorkers have a right to know who’s watching and what they’re doing with that information.”
UAS can be used in place of patrol cars to pursue vehicles, said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant and adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, or to scan rooftops and elevated parking garages for threats, such as the sniper who killed five cops in Dallas this month.
“The use of drones is going to save time, money and personnel,” Giacalone said. “Drones can protect the lives of not only police, but the public as well.”
Some commercial drones are capable of storing large amounts of data, shooting real-time video and using infrared technology. UAS used by the U.S. military can eavesdrop on electronic transmissions, use radar to track targets over large areas and carry out bombings.
As of June 8, the Federal Aviation Administration had registered 464,591 individual drone operators nationwide, records show. Another 10,054 non-hobbyist operators — many of them members of police and fire departments — had applied for and received special permission to fly drones for their respective agencies.
The FAA issued new rules for drone use last month, which include a weight limit of 55 pounds and maximum altitude limit of 400 feet. Those limits apply to UAS flown by law enforcement as well, officials said.
While federal authorities were drafting the drone rules, dozens of state and local governments across the country passed legislation limiting use of UAS. Some outlawed flights over private property, while others barred weaponized drones.
So far, 32 states have enacted laws addressing UAS and an additional five states have adopted nonbinding resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
No such laws or resolutions have been passed by the New York State Legislature, records show.
Locally, several Long Island municipalities have passed laws regulating drone use. Two towns, meanwhile, have put drones in the air as part of their municipal operations.
Babylon Town’s drone made its maiden flight in June, making it the first drone-equipped municipality in Suffolk County.
The town’s drone — battery-powered, piloted by a town employee and equipped with a camera streaming video to a smartphone or tablet computer — is capable of searching a town beach for a lost child, officials said, or recording footage at fires and building inspections.
In Nassau, Hempstead Town has two drones, which it uses to record promotional events and survey beach bird habitats, officials said.
No law enforcement agency on Long Island is known to have deployed a drone.
Krumpter and other high-ranking department officials are studying the new FAA rules before putting their UAS into action, officials said.
“With the new . . . FAA guidelines for drones, our Legal Bureau and Aviation Bureau will be working with Commissioner Krumpter and the NCPD Executive Staff to ensure compliance with these guidelines,” said Nassau Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun, the department’s head spokesman.
Nassau, which has begun the application process for federal certification to fly its drone, plans to purchase several more, Krumpter said.
In Suffolk, police officials said they have also begun the FAA application process but have yet to complete it.
Such certification is needed under federal law before a drone can be legally deployed by police.
“We are in the process of researching what type of UAS other departments are utilizing and will likely reinitiate our . . . application with the FAA and purchase a UAS,” a Suffolk police spokeswoman said. “Our intended usages would be crime scene documentation, search and rescue, and for various tactical situations. Some agencies, for example, are taking aerial photos [and] videos of crash scenes and then using photogrammetry for measurements in an effort to reduce road closure times.”
The NYPD did not respond to a request for information about its potential use of drones, or whether the department has deployed them. But department leaders have expressed support for UAS in the past.
“Myself, I’m supportive of the concept of drones, not only for police but for public safety in general,” NYPD Commissioner William Bratton said in May 2014. “It’s something that we actively keep looking at and stay aware of.”
Among the drones now being used by U.S. police departments are the Draganflyer X6, the Honeywell RQ–16A Micro Air Vehicle, and the InSight Drone, FAA records show.
“Drone technology will be the single most important new asset to the law enforcement community in the near future,” said Jim Record, a commercial drone pilot who taught Long Island’s first college-level drone course at Dowling College. “If you look at how the military already utilizes . . . drone technology to extend the operational sphere of influence of the average foot soldier, there is good reason to expect that this technology will be adapted for the average patrol police officer.”
How the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments say they may use drones:
- Assist officers in tactical situations
- Help in search and rescue efforts to find missing children
- Photograph crime and crash scenes