Airborne Law Enforcement Research Project (ALERP)

The world recently witnesses a significant increase in the number of drones/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for various uses. The use of drones in combination with air surveillance technology has found glory in law enforcement practices. Drones offer users with a “bird’s’’ providing a clear aerial view for a particular geographical locality. Law enforcement through air surveillance technology combines Night Vision (NV) devices with UAV by law enforcement personnel to enhance security of a pace at any time. For decades, monitoring and detection of land, forests and wildlife relied mainly on aircrafts and satellite (Hughes, 2020). The advancement and improvement in affordability sensors and drones have revolutionized ways in which an aircraft detects and monitors the ground. Devices such as Forward looking infra-red (FLIR), Night Vision Goggles (NVG) and thermal cameras are becoming increasingly applied in night surveillance for both manned and unmanned aircrafts/drones for security purposes. Despite that these devices are highly effective in detecting activities on the ground due to their aerial view, they have limitations that reduce the accuracy of law enforcers in executing ground surveillance (Hughes, 2020). This project analyzes the pros and cons of various airborne drones and sensors currently being used by law enforcement officers for surveillance and what the future holds in regards to surveillance technology.


Airborne Sensors and Drones/Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) used in Security Surveillance

Night Vision Systems/sensors

            The first-night vision devices were non-portable and were mounted on tanks during World War II. Night vision systems in law enforcement practices are common in modern security operations as they can be seen mounted on helmets of tactical operators to aid in vision. The devices are also mounted in the hands of officers in search of a person lost in the woods. The most notable application of night vision technology is evident in law enforcement helicopter pilots and vehicle operators to assist in night vision for the area under surveillance. Law enforcers commonly use two types of night vision devices which include thermal systems and light intensifications. Thermal systems make use of sensors to convert temperatures of objects between living things and their environment into visible images. What appears as cameras in thermal imaging are actually sensors (Homeland Security & National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, 2019). A typical example of thermal imaging technology for night vision is the Forward-looking infra-red (FLIR). This night vision technology derives pictures from heat but not light. The light released is part of the electromagnetic spectrum as opposed to cameras which can detect visible light to form images. Night intensifications are tubed goggles referred to as Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) that absorb small amounts of lights such as that from stars and moons and magnifies it to the level where a person is capable of seeing in the dark.


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

            Unmanned aerial systems refer to aircraft that are controlled from the ground using remote control systems. Unmanned aircraft operate or is designed to operate autonomously or without a pilot as typical to conventional aircrafts. The UAVs can vary in size depending on their purposes. Most UAVs are commonly being used in photography and in wildlife surveillance apart from the military and security application. The term drone is commonly used to refer to UAVs although its use is the context is not professionally acceptable (Hsieh et al., 2020). The reliance of drones for security operations is increasing every other day because of the ability of drones to provide a live stream, real-time capture of videos and images. Drones also have the ability to transport fly and transport goods. Drones are increasingly being used by law enforcers at border control points to enhance and ensure the security of a particular region. In the event of natural disasters, drones are used by security experts for search and rescue missions and to gather information regarding essential supplies during the mission (POL Staff, 2018).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Various Airborne Drones and Sensors

Advantages of Night Vision Systems/Sensors

Night vision devices offer law enforcement officers the ability to perceive objects in the dark during their surveillance exercises. By use of image intensifiers, a soldier is capable of conducting a combat mission without the need for active illumination from an outside source. Image intensifiers are of small sizes, light in weight and low power requirement. The user does not run short of power during an operation or a combat mission when using image intensifiers for his/her night vision operations. The fact that light intensifiers do not depend largely on a visible external source of light means they are suitable for hiding the physical identification of a law enforcement officer. This is because they don’t produce visible light, although the users can clearly view their subjects in a dark zone (Hughes, 2020). They provide a sought of a camouflaged experience during security operations as the enemy may not realize they have been spotted. Modern night vision devices are extremely easy to use because the system’s imagery is clear and often easy to understand. Interestingly, thermal cameras are not affected by visible light, and one can successfully perceive clear pictures even in the absence of light. Anybody able to watch television can use FLIR thermal cameras. This quality makes the device easy to operate by security officers on surveillance (Hughes, 2020). Using the night vision devices is also affordable because of the low cost of securing the devices.

Disadvantages of Night Vision Systems/Sensors

Viewing through night vision devices can be a hectic exercise as it can be compared to a view through a tunnel. The average normal field of vision is known to be 190 degrees but night vision devices only allow a 40-degree view. For law enforcement officer using night vision devices to increase their effectiveness, they must constantly turn their head to detect dangers on every side of their body because of the narrow view provided by the night vision devices. In normal vision, binocular coverage is experienced, but nigh vision devices offer a monocular vision which poses a real visionary problem as one is forced to rotate their head for a quick view of all corners (National Research Council, 2005). A law enforcement officer can easily be attacked by an enemy because of the limited vision provided by the night vision devices.

While viewing two objects of different sizes lay side by side using the night vision devices, the largest object appears closer, and this aspect tampers with reality. Furthermore, some object viewed through night-vision goggles tends to appear far away than they actually are in real vision. In this scenario, the sharpness of an object is affected by distance, and viewers tend to lose the sharpness of an object depending on the distance and size of the object involved. These features pose great challenges to law enforcement officers using night vision devices as they result in miscalculation. Targeting the enemy under these circumstances proves to be a difficult affair for law enforcers because of the compromised distancing issues when targeting an enemy from an aircraft. Night visions objects also tend to make light sources not part of the terrain vision appear closer than their actual distances (Robotics Technology for Everyone Staff, 2020).  Users are expected to be aware of the crucial factors of night vision goggles before using them for security surveillance or other functions.

The goggle night vision devices are also disadvantageous because of the time needed to adjust from day to night vision. Often, one can barely see immediately they walk into a dark movie theatre in the daytime because the eyes need time to adjust to the visibility status of the room. The experience is the same when a law enforcement officer on night surveillance uses night vision devices to view certain locations. The time required to adjust to the night vision depends on one’s experience with night vision devices and the length of use at a particular time. This functionality is a limitation to law enforcers who, in case of an ambush, may face harm from enemies because of the inability of the eyes to adjust quickly to the darkness.

Advantages of Airborne Drones/UAV

The use of drones in law enforcement roles has skyrocketed in the recent past, and the initiative comes with numerous advantages that make the practice outstanding in enhancing security. Drones have been used by police to investigate active shooters because they prevent police from risking their live bodies in responding to a shooting incident. The drones provide insight intelligence to the police in incidents where a suspect is considered armed and dangerous. Drones can, hence, locate the position of a shooter and offer law enforcers the best plan to neutralize the situation. Drones also help the police to analyze crime scenes accurately in preparation for rescue missions. Through the use of a measurable and navigable map, the police can successfully recreate the scene in preparation for a revenge attack or a rescue mission. When used in search and rescue mission, the devices have the capability of a wide coverage area and offer high chances of recovery in case of an accident or a disaster strike.

Perhaps one of the most effective functions of UAV is surveillance. This ability of drones helps police to uncover hideouts for suspects, and the technology helps keep the surveillance mission discreet enough. The drones provide a wider view of the geographical area under surveillance and ensure high safety for the officers. When drones are integrated into law enforcement activities, safety is enhanced when groundbreaking work is initiated. This is especially possible when using drones with thermal imaging capabilities and advanced zoom functionality. Drones are also being used by law enforcers to manager traffic and monitor events on the ground. Police can use drones to conduct surveys of traffic situation from above and use the video coverage from drones to redirect traffic in large cities. The law enforcers can also use drones to monitor suspicious activities in congested events and enhance the security of participants.

Disadvantages of Airborne Drones/UAV

            Drones are known to have short battery life and may not be suitable for long police operations. Drone batteries get exhausted after a few hours of operation, and the police department must replace the drone with a newly charged device. Despite that police drones take videos as evidence of real-time incidents taking place on the ground, the videos can be manipulated through editing. The fact that drones are easy to control means they can be used by terrorists to conduct different attacks. Drones are vulnerable to attacks, and this exposes the devices to the risk of highjack. This vulnerability nature of drones is as a result of the wireless communication technology used to operate the drones. Attacks conducted through drones can be highly devastating where they may cause social and commercial losses whenever weapons are attacked on them and directed to a particular place. Drones are also expensive to own as the police department requires billions of dollars to obtain a drone for every police station. Each drone costs between $50 to $150 and obtaining one for each police station can affect the overall budget incurred in law enforcement. The use of drones by law enforcers also subjects them to privacy breach where recording a person or their property without consent amounts to breach of one’s privacy.

The Future of Airborne Law Enforcement Technology

            The increasing use of UAVs is currently raising concerns for lawmakers and their actions are soon going to reshape the way drones are going to be applied in future for surveillance purposes. Legislators are staging proposals that would require all users of drones be prohibited unless a warrant of use of obtained by the government. Privacy advocates have emerged with laws that seek to ensure privacy whenever drones are used by law enforcers (Lillian, 2019). Eleven states in the US have already proposed that the government itself would require a warrant whenever drones are to be used by law enforcers. The American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) statement prohibits the use of drones all-round the clock for surveillance of traffic and persons. This action groups’ agenda is to prevent the use of drones for suspicious and invasive reasons (Lillian, 2019).

The emerging legislation in regards to drone usage in the United States is likely to result in the grounding of even in circumstances where their use would be beneficial. For instance, police may want to fly a drone during a marathon event to enhance the security of participants in the event but they will be unable to achieve their goal unless they have obtained a warrant to use drones in the particular event. If the bills requiring police to obtain a warrant before they can survey a particular area passes into law, it would appear to clash with the Fourth Amendment, where police are supposed to protect the public based on the reasonableness of observing public activities (Yaacoub & Salman, 2020). These changes are likely to limit the freedom of law enforcers’ use of drones in the future and reduce the availability of drone usage due to low demand.


            The use of sensors and UAV in law enforcement surveillance is a groundbreaking technology that positions global security measures at magnificent height. The emerging trends in the use of drones are likely to transform the way police department work in enforcing security. However, as surveillance technology continues to gain strength, cybercriminals are getting smarter and have the capability to manipulate the systems used in operations of drones for personal gain and public harm. Airborne law enforcement activities ought to innovate additional ways of operating the systems without causing a breach of privacy or harm to the public.