A Growing Popularity of Drones

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Who wouldn't want a drone for Christmas? Answer: Anyone who does not already have one. This group includes law enforcement. In 1946, the United States military used the word drone to describe an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It had a two-fold meaning. First, drone was an Old English term meaning male bee and secondly, a monotonous, sustained sound (Merriam-Webster, 2018). Drone, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS), Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV), Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA), no matter what you call it, the drone is a technological wonder that is taking over the public and private service communities.

In recent years, drones have played a huge role in military operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Preble, 2015). Business leaders with vision have begun to view drones as part of the near future. Drones are used in the public sector to survey roads, equipment and pipelines in the Prudhoe Bay area of Alaska (Nichols, 2014). Businesses are utilizing drones for delivery of products as an improved means of transportation (Preble, 2015). Farmers are using drones to count and check cattle and to monitor fence conditions. Twenty years ago, many adults had a smart phone on their birthday or Christmas wish list. Now, not only adults, but also children have included a drone on their wish list. It was predicted that last year, over one million Americans would receive a drone for Christmas (Porter, 2017).

This obsession to acquire a drone includes the public safety sector. From 2006 to 2014, only a few public safety agencies were considering the utilization of drone technology. Currently however, over 347 state and local public safety departments have purchased drones, and law enforcement leads in their acquisition (Gettinger, 2017). Along with advancements in technology have come challenges to insuring the safe and responsible use of drones going forward. Specifically armed drones, which have the ability to improve tactical response to a situation, while providing the protection needed to ensure the safety of police officers and the public.

Background of the Problem

The use of drones in both the private and public sectors has increased dramatically over the last decade (Porter, 2017; Sharkey, 2011). In 2012, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act was passed in order to safely integrate drones into the domestic airspace. This act tasked the FAA with developing regulations relevant to the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for public entities (Aquino-Segarra, 2016; Nagy, 2014). The FAA Modernization and Reform Act allows for the use of drones by law enforcement, but does not identify specific operational guidelines pertaining to Fourth Amendment considerations often dealt with by law enforcement (Brumfield, 2014). Many states have passed legislation pertaining to the use of drones by law enforcement (Smith, 2014); however, there is a lack of consistency between states in the purpose of the legislation making it difficult to establish baseline requirements for use in policy development specific to law enforcement. This study was designed to address the need to establish the essential policy elements needed to safely and responsibly integrate armed drones to be used by law enforcement into our domestic airspace.

Statement of the Problem

Aviation in the form of fixed and rotary wing aircraft has been used by law enforcement for decades. However, the rapid advancement of drone technology has left lawmakers scrambling to enact legislation pertaining to both the public and private sectors. The demands placed on the aviation industry to regulate this growing and complex sector are extremely high.

Research indicates that due to regulatory uncertainty, many law enforcement agencies have not developed acceptable policies on the use of drones for operations within their agencies (Rapp, 2009; Vacek, 2009). Subject matter experts (SMEs) in the law enforcement community can aid in filling the void created by such a fast growing industry and significantly contribute to the body of knowledge pertaining to the development of aviation regulation.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this qualitative study is to conduct in-depth interviews with subject matter experts (SMEs). Professional knowledge and experienced perspective received from SMEs in three areas of drone policy making: drone operations, policy development, and legal counsel will be collected and analyzed. Results will then be used to identify the essential elements of policy needed to provide law enforcement agencies with an effective baseline policy pertaining to the operation of armed drones in law enforcement and a base for further research.

Research Questions

The following research questions will be answered by this study.

  1. What current laws and regulations apply to the use of drones by law enforcement agencies?
  2. According to subject matter experts, what elements are needed to insure the use of armed drones in law enforcement do not violate the Fourth Amendment rights of the citizens?
  3. According to subject matter experts, what basic elements of policy are needed to meet the minimum standards for an effective armed drone policy?


Due to the continuous evolution of technology surrounding drone development, the following assumptions must be included in this study. First, there is an assumption that essential elements of policy were needed by law enforcement. Second, is the assumption that the participants of this study will respond to each question accurately and results analyzed in accordance with the purpose of the study. Lastly, it is assumed that through the design of this study, essential information will be obtained and effective policy elements established.


A concern with any qualitative research is the relatively small number of participants; however, the purpose of this study does not include generalizing results to the greater population. A second and primary limitation is the probable geographical location of participants, which will create the need to conduct several interviews via Skype or telephone. Due to the experience of the researcher in conducting interviews, any limitation would be minimal. Another limitation of this study is the bias of the participants. By utilizing a triangular method of data collection, the researcher aims to reduce the opportunity for bias.


Armed Drone – For the purpose of this study, armed drone refers to any drone, as described above, carrying a weaponized payload.

CFR – Code of Federal Regulation

COA – Certificate of Authorization issued by the Federal Aviation Administration

Curtilage – The land immediately surrounding a house or dwelling, to include any buildings or structures.

Drone – For the purpose of this study, any unmanned aircraft to include: Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS), Micro Aerial Vehicle (MAV), Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), and Remotely Operated Aircraft (ROA), (Cavoukian, 2012; Marks, 2017; Spelman, 2015).

FAA – Federal Aviation Administration

GPS – Global Positioning System

LEA – Law Enforcement Agency

MAV – Micro Air Vehicle

Mosaic Theory – A theory of law whereby searches can be viewed as a collective sequence of steps rather than separate individual steps when placed in the context of the Fourth Amendment definition of a search (Kerr, 2012).

Open Field – The area beyond curtilage, which does not fall under the Fourth Amendment protection described as persons, houses, papers, or effects.

ROA – Remotely Operated Aircraft (Spelman, 2015)

RPAS – Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (Spelman, 2015)

Stash House – A house where weapons, supplies, or drugs are hidden.

sUAS – Small Unmanned Aerial System (Marks, 2017).

UA – Unmanned Aircraft (Spelman, 2015)

UAS – Unmanned Aerial System, to include the entire system; aircraft, digital network, and operator (Thompson, 2013).

UAV – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Spelman, 2015)

Scope of the Study

The aviation and aerospace industry is one of the most complex and diverse of any in the United States. The complexity of the industry consists of research, design, manufacturing, maintenance and repair. It's diversity includes military, general aviation, industrial and commercial sectors. The focus of this study is to research the area, which spans several of the industry sectors. Specifically, the segment of aviation concerned with regulating and policy development overarching multiple sectors both public and private.

With advancements in technology, the use of drones is becoming more and more popular. Many law enforcement agencies are limited when it comes to resources, specifically personnel and budget restraints. The purpose of this study is to provide information to law enforcement agencies in order for them to develop an effective policy prior to the implementation of armed drones in the field. Results of this study will contribute significantly to policy development for law enforcement and will provide a knowledge base of information to assist the aviation industry in the advancement of regulations needed for such a rapidly growing industry.

The benefits of this study will apply to law enforcement agencies with limited resources, providing them with an in-depth study of drone policies and the basic elements needed for an effective armed drone policy. In addition, the general public will benefit from this study in understanding how drone operations can work within guidelines outlined in current use of force policy and the Fourth Amendment.

The data derived from this research can provide a knowledge base for aviation administrators and aid in developing or enhancing regulations, defining terminology, properly wording legislation and policies for all aircraft. The need for establishment of federal regulations addressing the progressive and cutting-edge applications of drone technology is evident. This type of research in the area of unmanned aircraft policy is essential, in order to maintain the high level of standards the aviation and aerospace industry is accustomed to and to ensure the safe integration of drones into the domestic airspace.

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A Growing Popularity Of Drones. (2020, Mar 06). Retrieved April 20, 2024 , from

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