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Drones Find Increasing Use Among Non-Military Government Agencies

Unmanned aerial vehicles can boldly go where other cameras cannot

General Atomics MQ-9 large-sized UAV, formerly known as the Predator B, was capable of attacking ground targets. However, its role with NASA, U.S. Homeland Security and Coast Guard is one of patrol.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have become the rage in the consumermarket with hobbyists across the country taking flight. While the Federal Aviation Admission oversees the use of all such unmanned vehicles, the rules for civilian systems—which include those for hobby and recreational purposes—typically fall under “Model Aircraft Operation” and those rules are well-documented. Less understood is the civil and government regulations.

In fact at present time it is easier for a hobbyist to operate a drone than it is for almost any government organization. At present Civil Operations (non-governmental) and Public Operations (governmental) each have their own unique rules and regulations. Currently Public Aircraft Operations are limited by federal statue to certain government operations within the U.S airspace under Title 49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(41). For public aircraft operations, the FAA can issue a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), which permits public agencies and organizations to operate a particular aircraft, for particular purposes, in a particular area.

“The use of drones is actually rather limited right now, and a lot of it boils down to privacy concerns,” said Michael Blades, senior industry analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Some states even have pending legislation that would keep government drones grounded. This year a bill was passed in Maine that would drastically restrict the use of drones by state and local law enforcement. Supporters of the bill argued that it was an effort to thwart surveillance programs that might conflict with those aforementioned privacy concerns.

However, law enforcement in Maine will still be able to use UAVs for the purpose of search and rescue operation when the law enforcement agency determines that it could alleviate an immediate danger to any person actively engaged in those efforts.


The FAA has approved the use of drones for many federal agencies in recent years.

“A number of agencies are using drones,” added Blades. “Homeland Security tops the list as does the Coast Guard, each of which uses the larger size General Atomics MQ-9.”

Formerly known as the Predator B, this large-sized UAV, is probably the best known and was developed as a “hunter-killer”and capable of attacking ground targets. However, its role with NASA, U.S. Homeland Security and Coast Guard is one of patrol and these aircraft have been equipped with sensors and cameras including GA-ASI’s Lynx synthetic aperture radar and Raytheon’s MTS-B electro-optical infrared sensors.

The Aeryon Skyranger

This system was designed in 1998 and first flew in 2001. It was created to be a reliable aircraft that can be flown within the national airspace and was also the first unmanned aircraft to receive an experimental certificate from the FAA.

“This particular aircraft is flown much like a manned aircraft,” said Scott Dann, director of international strategic development at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA-ASI), an affiliate of privately-held General Atomics. “It is about the size of a small business jet, and is built for high endurance.”

This unmanned aerial vehicle has a pilot on the ground who sits in a cockpit that includes stick, pedals and ruder control. It also requires a transponder and VHF radio to “talk” to the air traffic controller.

Currently this high-end UAV, which is in $10 to $12 million range with cameras and other sensors, is used by a number of agencies, including the DoD, National Guard and Air Force. Domestically the MQ-9 is the “eye in the sky” that watches the borders.

“Customs and Border Protection are at the tip of the spear with nine or 10 of these aircraft,” added Dann. “They are used to protect the southern and northern borders as well as to monitor the maritime frontier. They are at the forefront of their eyes in the sky.”

The platform’s eyes include two cameras in the front, which allow the pilot to operate much like a traditional aircraft. It also includes a very advanced surveillance camera such as the Raytheon MTS-B, which provides electro-optical, infrared, laser designation and even laser illumination packaged into a single sensor package.

Other agencies are also seeing the advantage of having “eyes in the sky” as well.

“At present it isn’t that the government agencies aren’t using drones, but it just really isn’t advertised,” said Blades. “Where it will likely take off is with mapping and surveying, and this is a sign as to how good the software is right now. There are options for aerial photos that can be stitched together and provide high details that you can’t get otherwise.”


Another advantage of the larger platforms such as the MQ-9 is its ability to stay in the air for extended periods of time. These UAVs can pretty much replace conventional aircraft, which can make them actually seem affordable even with the multi-million dollar price tag.

“If you look to the sky the answer is there, and any manned aircraft that isn’t transporting people from point A to point B is a candidate for UAS/UAV operations,” explained Dann. “This can be from traffic surveillance to imaging to firefighting.”

Battling fires is one area where the MQ-9 and large platforms could truly find a niche. The aircraft can stay up for longer periods of time than almost any manned aircraft; two or three days at a time because there is no need for pressurization or facilities for the crew. This means less weight with added endurance. Two aircraft operating in tandem could essentially be in orbit around the clock indefinitely.

“This could allow the aircraft to create a persistent stare that becomes a force multiplier,” said Dann. “This is useful for firefighting where at night the UAV can monitor the situation over a large area and in the daytime focus on specific trouble spots. It could further free up people to fight fires on the ground, and for the teams to more accurately deploy people.”


Not all the drones that are being used by government agencies need to be the size of the MQ-9 or carry its payload. Smaller drones—not much larger than what the hobbyist market is using—are already being deployed.

“There are many applications for drones across the board, and that extends into the government sector,” said Alexander Stimpson, postdoctoral associate at Duke University and lead research scientist on the study of drones. “Drones are a good alternative to noisy trucks in applications such as wildlife conservation, and drones can be used to obtain better data for weather tracking.”

Aerial footage taken by a Draganflyer X6 UAV

As previously noted, Maine is just one state that has also offered an exemption for the use by police and fire in the case of search and rescue, and this is completely founded added Stimpson. “Drones are ideal when sending in more people might create more victims.”


Not every drone being utilized by police, fire, EMS or even government agencies is the size of the UAVs that took flight in warzones. However, what makes these smaller drones stand out above the hobbyist models is the fact that these are more robust, rugged and are fully integrated systems.

Instead of looking to the skies, local civic leaders may instead look to Canada, which happens to be home to two commercial drone makers that now service the government market: Aeryon and Draganfly.

“Our drones can replicate what you do with a helicopter in most cases,” said David Proulx, vice president of marketing at Aeryon in Waterloo, Ont. “What sets apart the Aeryon Skyranger is that it you don’t need a license, you don’t have to be a pilot and you don’t need special training—you also don’t need to schedule flight time with a small UAV so you can take it out of the truck and use it.”

The price for Aeryon’s drones are in the tens of thousands of dollars, which is a far cry from the hundreds of dollars of most hobbyist models, but still far less than the hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars that a larger military-grade platform will cost. The setup of the Skyranger is much like the hobbyist models, but a whole lot more sophisticated.

“Our model can handle inclement weather, can fly up to 15,000 feet above sea level and even handle 55mph wind,” added Proulx.

The payloads of the Skyranger are also fully integrated, so it isn’t just about screwing on a GoPro camera or similar rig. “We run the spectrum of different imagery solutions including daylight cameras, IR cameras as well as specialized payloads such as gas detection and air sampling,” said Proulx. In a time of crisis or even for remote areas, the Skyranger can be outfitted with communication technology to increase the range to those on the ground, and Proulx was quick to note that the system is “much more than just a flying camera.”

Draganfly also offers a range of products from small drones that look not much larger than a dragonfly to its Draganfly Tango Tandem, a fixed wing UAV that designed as an effective solution for hard to get aerial images and yet can still be controlled by a lone operator.

Camera packages are available and can be pre-installed in the Tango along with a diversity receiver and two patch antennas to receive 2.4GHz video signal along with a video recorder and monitor options in the ground control system.

“It can be used a lot like Google Earth but for crime scenes and traffic accidents,” said Ben Miller, who recently joined Draganfly as a sales engineer after working for 15 years with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, where he created and lead the its drone program. “Drones can allow for a 3D overview view and that can be advantageous as this can create a 3D map where you can see the dimensions.”

In this way the Dragonfly systems could be used to allow investigators to walk around a crime scene or study a traffic accident without shutting down a local for long periods of time, but it can also be used in fire fighting as well as rescue.“A number of fire services have bought our products,” added Miller. “These platforms allow you to monitor a fire from above with a different view than you get from the ground, but you can also use the different imaging to determine what you might not otherwise see with the naked eye. This is where thermal imaging and other options can really come in handy.”


Getting airborne with any size UAV is not without a number of laws however. Currently law enforcement north of the border is adopting the drones fast than America however, and much of this has to do with current FAA regulations.

“The regulations are less strict than in American,” said Frost & Sullivan’s Blades. “But attitudes will change with education. Now there is the connotation that drones might shot at you, but people have always been risk adverse when it is an untested area.”

The other thing that must change are those aforementioned FAA regulations, which are in essence based on radio navigation and most UAV technology relies on GPS.

“There are the issues of infrastructure and there are the rules, the FAA can’t deviate from it as they are bound by the rules,” said General Atomics’ Dann.

The other issue he admits is still the cost.

“Millions of dollars can be a hard to do, as there are competing resources so budgets are constrained,” he noted. “We are also considered a disruptive technology and in a good way. But attitudes need to change.”