The Somerset Police Department is the first department in Kentucky to be authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones.
In a press release, the Somerset Police Department said it filed for an FAA Certificate of Authorization in February 2014. After an eight-month application process, the final certificate was issued October 20, 2014.
Chief of Police Doug Nelson said, “When we started this program, we followed the same principles we have for launching other new programs. We started with seeking outside funding, then training in the proper operation and application, then developed written policy – all before our first flight. Safety of the public and of our personnel is our primary concern.”
The department said small unmanned aircraft provide a low-cost benefit to law enforcement and public safety. Officers said they are inexpensive to purchase compared to manned aircraft and very inexpensive to operate. Vastly different than the military unmanned aircraft that are equipped with weapons and multiple sensors, the Somerset PD small unmanned aircraft weighs less than 3 pounds and only carries one high-definition, wide angle camera.
The department reported the aircraft’s primary role will be for low-level photography that can’t be safely or easily obtained with manned aircraft. The small UA can be used for a number of public safety missions, including searching in areas that may be too dangerous for officers or personnel to enter, tactical support, and investigation support. It can also be used to support other emergency departments like fire and EMS, as well as the gas, water, and sewer departments within the city.
Combined with mapping software, the images taken by the UAs can be used to create a three dimensional, scaled model of traffic collision and crime scenes. The pilot uses a remote control connected to a tablet device to view flight data and mapping. The tablet also displays a live video feed from the on-board camera system.
“Privacy is also a top concern from the public when they hear about law enforcement aircraft and especially unmanned aircraft,” said Chief of Police Doug Nelson. “We recognize those concerns and have written policy to ensure its proper, legal use. It will not be used as a tool to randomly look at people or locations on the ground. The public will only see the UA in use when there is a specific scene or incident where the UA would be beneficial to the overall mission.”
SPD Captain Shannon Smith, the department’s only pilot, just returned from the Airborne Law Enforcement Association’s Unmanned Aerial Systems training course in Houston, Texas. “The FAA restrictions on government agencies operating unmanned aircraft are strict. We have to notify air traffic controllers at least 30 minutes before any flight, we cannot fly higher than 400 feet above ground level, and we must maintain visual contact with the UA at all times while in flight,” commented Captain Smith.
In addition to those restrictions, all UA pilots must be FAA certificated pilots and all observers must hold a second class medical certificate issued by the FAA.
The certificate allows training flights to be conducted while officers become more familiar with the aircraft’s capabilities and limitations. After the training period is complete, the FAA will conduct a site visit to inspect the department’s progress and training.
The unmanned system will supplement the department’s existing gyro plane that’s been in operation since 2012.