Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Traffic Incident Management

Chapter 1. Introduction

Traffic crashes are a common occurrence on the Nation’s roadways and they adversely impact lives, time, and money. In 2018, there were over 6.5 million crashes reported by U.S. police agencies, resulting in 2,710,000 injuries and 36,560 fatalities.1 Crashes are a problem for those involved and for those impacted by incident-related congestion. Crashes are responsible for travel time delays, contributing to the congestion that averages 97 hours and $1,348 per driver annually.2 Serious and fatal traffic crashes present additional challenges, because investigations require detailed measurements that often close roadways for extended periods.

Traffic Incident Management (TIM) seeks to mitigate the impact of roadway incidents by promoting a shared sense of responsibility among incident responders, a unified approach to on-scene activities, and a sense of urgency to clear travel lanes. Crash investigation technology is proven to clear roadways more quickly and save lives, time, and money.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are a technology that has proven effective in reducing the amount of time needed to document fatal crash scenes. A study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) found that UAS were one hour faster than a robotic total station and two hours faster than a manual total station in a controlled comparison.3 North Carolina Department of Transportation credited a field comparison UAS with more than 300 percent time savings over three-dimensional (3D) Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation (Laser) mapping.4 In more than 125 actual crash investigations, the Washington State Patrol estimates an 80 percent reduction in road closure at serious crashes because of the implementation of UAS for scene mapping.5

UAS holds great promise for TIM applications, improving safety, relieving congestion, and reducing the economic impacts of roadway incidents. This primer describes how UAS can benefit traffic crash investigations and other TIM-related activities by providing a general overview, benefits, and implementation guidance.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Described

While there are over 18,000 police agencies in the U.S., less than 200 have manned aviation capabilities.6 According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, the number of drones used for public safety has increased steadily over the past several years. Their Public Safety Drones report counts 1,578 public safety agencies using drones, with law enforcement comprising 70 percent of those agencies (1,103).7 Figure 1 shows the number of police agencies throughout the country that are actively using UAS.

A map of the contiguous U.S. showing the locations of police agencies using unmanned aircraft systems. There are 1,098 locations and the majority of the agencies are located on the eastern half of the country and along the west coast.

Figure 1. Map. U.S. police agencies using unmanned aircraft systems (does not include Alaska (3 agencies) and Hawaii (2 agencies)).
(Source: Bard College.)

A new era of unmanned flight operations is rapidly becoming a part of the law enforcement toolkit. Sometimes referred to as “unmanned aerial systems,” UAS encompasses the hardware and software components required for flight of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly referred to as a “drone.” Unmanned systems are well-suited for many tasks, and the cost to operate is a fraction of manned air operations. Small UAVs are those weighing less than 55 pounds and typically used for law enforcement applications.

Small UAVs are remotely controlled by a pilot. The battery-operated aircraft can be easily flown over a traffic crash scene to capture images using high-definition digital cameras. During pre-flight setup, software enables the pilot to establish the perimeter of the area to be flown and the pattern that will be used. Once airborne, the UAV automatically flies a pattern over the defined area taking scores of pictures that are later “stitched” together using computer software.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates operation of UAS in the United States, including recreational, commercial, and governmental use. For information, please see the Federal Aviation Administration website.

Operating Environment for Unmanned Aircraft Systems

UAS operators in both the public and private sectors must adhere to statutory and regulatory requirements. Public aircraft operations (including UAS operations) are governed under the statutory requirements for public aircraft established in 49 USC § 40102 and § 40125. Additionally, both public and civil UAS operators may operate under the regulations promulgated by the FAA. The provisions of 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 107 apply to most operations of UAS weighing less than 55 pounds. Operators of UAS weighing greater than 55 pounds may request exemptions to the airworthiness requirements of 14 CFR part 91 pursuant to 49 USC §44807. UAS operators should also be aware of the requirements of the airspace in which they wish to fly. The FAA provides extensive resources and information to help guide UAS operators in determining which laws, rules, and regulations apply to a particular UAS operation. For more information, please see FAA Unmanned Aircraft. Figure 2 is an example of the FAA Part 107 license.

A a sample remote pilot certificate showing the following information: name, address, nationality, date of birth, sex, height, weight, hair and eye color, a certificate number and date of issue.

Figure 2. Photo. A sample Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 remote pilot certificate.
(Source: Federal Aviation Administration.)

Certificate of Authorization and 107 Waiver

If the FAA determines that the UAS can be operated safely under specific conditions, a waiver can be obtained, known as a certificate of authorization (COA), that allows the law enforcement agency to fly UAS under conditions that would otherwise be exempted by law.8 Most commonly, law enforcement agencies look to use the COA to fly in additional airspaces that may be limited by law, as well as at night.

The COA can also designate the agency as a “public aircraft operator” (PAO), which authorizes them to certify their own equipment and pilots.9 Many law enforcement agencies opt to do both Remote Pilot certification and COA to authorize exemption to specific restrictions.

State Laws for Law Enforcement Agencies

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), since 2013 44 States have adopted some type of UAV law and three more have resolutions.10 Some States have both legal restrictions and legal exemptions for governmental use of UAS.

While there are many States that restrict the use of UAS by law enforcement, there are others that specifically allow the use of the technology for traffic crash investigation.

1 NHTSA. Traffic Safety Facts: Police Reported Motor Vehicle Traffic Crashes in 2018. Department of Transportation HS 812 860. November 2019. [Return to note 1]

2 Reed, T., & Kidd, T. (2019). INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard. Kirkland, WA: INRIX Research. [Return to note 2]

3 National Institute of Justice (NIJ). Operational Evaluation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Crash Scene Reconstruction: Operational Evaluation Report. AOS-17-0078. January 2017. [Return to note 3]

4 NCDOT. Collisions Scene Reconstruction & Investigation Using Unmanned Aircraft Systems. August 2017. [Return to note 4]

5 Durbin, R. Washington State Patrol Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Program Overview. Agency PowerPoint Presentation. 2020. [Return to note 5]

6 Police Foundation. Why law enforcement is using UAS for public safety. [Return to note 6]

7 Gettinger, Dan. Public Safety Drones, 3rd Edition. March 2020. [Return to note 7]

8 FAA. COA. Federal Aviation Administration, April 25, 2019. [Return to note 8]

9 FAA. Drones in Public Safety: A Guide to Starting Operations. Federal Aviation Administration, February 2019. [Return to note 9]

10 NCSL. Current Unmanned Aircraft State Law Landscape. Accessed April 4, 2020. [Return to note 10]