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

Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Traffic Incident Management

Chapter 4. Implementing Unmanned Aircraft Systems for Traffic Incident Management

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) can be an effective tool for law enforcement agencies in traffic incident management (TIM). Deploying a law enforcement UAS program for TIM applications requires a comprehensive approach, considering agency objectives, community engagement, policy, training, and data stewardship. A well-developed plan for using UAS sets the stage for success.

Having Clear Objectives and Mission Focus

The use of UAS in a law enforcement agency must be mission-driven and align with the agency’s mission. The decision to use UAS as a law enforcement tool should be approved by the Chief Executive of the agency and the purpose should be effectively communicated from the top down. Every member of the organization should have a basic understanding of the need for UAS and the boundaries for use. The intended uses and specific prohibitions for use should be identified and stipulated at the onset by the agency head.

A concept of operations (ConOps) or staff study can help clearly define the vision for how, when, where, and why the agency should use UAS. The foundational work of a staff study or ConOps helps establish specific and measurable objectives. It is never too early to involve internal and external stakeholders.

While UAS holds great promise as a technological leap forward, alternative methods for mapping and photographing traffic crash scenes are necessary for the integrated crash reconstruction business approach. A minimum weather visibility of three miles from the control station can make flight prohibitive in fog, smoke, and smog. Precipitation and extreme temperatures can also be problematic for some UAS aircraft. Depending on the UAS and its motor/rotor strength, excessive wind conditions can also inhibit UAS operation. These are all factors that might be considered in an agency analysis.

Privacy, Community Engagement, and Support

Before any unmanned aircraft are purchased, the agency should have a clear idea for the mission and objectives, but also a communications plan for public information and education.

Groups that are concerned with privacy rights have weighed in on the use of UAS by law enforcement in recent years and there is concern among those organizations that drones may jeopardize individual rights. With that said, those same groups have shown flexibility with law enforcement missions related to traffic crash investigations.21 Both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center have stated that crash investigation uses would not necessarily be objectionable.22

The Austin, Texas Police Department (APD) realized that using UAS for traffic crash investigations required listening sessions with the public to provide information and also hear public concerns about privacy.23 Similarly, in Oro Valley, Arizona, the Police Department (OVPD) felt compelled to host demonstrations and public talks to be as transparent as possible.24 A public advisory board is another way that agencies can garner support for their UAS program and the concept of operations for the use of UAS.25 Regardless of how community engagement is undertaken, it should be initiated at the beginning of the process, preferably before any equipment is purchased.

Law enforcement use of UAS should also be rooted in ethics, transparency, accountability, and record keeping. Documentation of flight activities cuts across many program areas and supports transparency, officer proficiency, policy compliance, maintenance, and legal operation. Program and workflow management should dictate how agencies track operators, authorizations, missions, and logs. Every UAS flight, even training, should be documented. Some States, like Texas, enacted legislation that requires bi-annual reporting by law enforcement agencies that engage in UAS, including specific information about every use of the aircraft, type of activity and information collected, and estimated cost.26

Training, Safety, And Data Security

Organizationally, an agency’s UAS coordinator can create a point of contact for questions, both internal and external to the agency. Beyond the coordinator role, the agency should plan for pilots and observers to support the use of UAS. Like all equipment, some degree of technical expertise is required of all personnel who are part of the agency UAS program, enabling them to handle technical issues and routine maintenance.

Training is at the forefront of law enforcement operations and UAS is no different. UAS operators in both the public and private sectors must also adhere to statutory and regulatory requirements.

As a unique type of camera equipment, it is important to recognize that the images created by UAS are not unlike other photographic evidence. The agency’s UAS implementation plan should include data processes and a data policy. The plan might address how to collect, process, store, analyze, disseminate, and access UAS images and flight record data. Data storage is an important part of that plan, given each UAS photograph is about six megabytes in size and a single orthomosaic can be one gigabyte.

Most aircraft can store flight statistics, which can be downloaded and saved for reporting, and flight software captures data on flight operations, using apps that are especially suited for logging flights by date, time, location, and operator.

Written Policies and Procedures

As with any law enforcement endeavor, good written policies are an essential part of the framework that guides organizational and employee activities. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has created a recommended policy for UAS. In addition, there are now enough agencies using UAS that finding sample policies is easy.

The IACP’s model policy gives information about the purpose, policy, definitions, and procedures for UAS in an agency. Procedures include program administration, personnel qualifications and training, operational procedures, safety, and maintenance.

Flight checklists, procedures, mission planning, and technical aspects of crash scene mapping might be added to a UAS policy, covered in procedural guidelines, or added to training.


Part of the planning for UAS is evaluating operational costs, which include hardware, software, and accessories. There are companies that provide “turn key” solutions for UAS, but most agencies acquire UAS components individually during the initial establishment of their programs. Again, the experience of other agencies through a planning document will minimize missteps in acquiring the right aircraft, computer hardware, and software.

The budget for UAS should be defined by the needs of the agency with the goal of obtaining the right equipment for the mission. Starting small and building a UAS program may avoid making significant investments and over-purchasing equipment or accessories. Acquiring moderately priced consumer grade systems may be useful for crash mapping without modification.

Program Evaluation

The impetus for UAS for crash mapping and TIM is that it solves multiple problems that all stem from the same source, roadway incidents. The UAS solution provides faster scene mapping, reducing the exposure of incident responders and clearing roadways faster, which will ultimately reduce secondary crashes. Law enforcement can make the business case for UAS using quantitative and qualitative results from successful agencies. To reinforce the decision to use UAS and expand programs, more tangible results might benefit agency management. Where the agency can show that UAS provided direct savings, a return on investment, or benefit cost, a strong foundation for the technology is possible.

Direct cost savings reflect that UAS is cheaper than current or alternative systems, like total station or three-dimensional (3D) scanners. Return on investment might equate to tangible agency benefits like less investigator scene time or fewer overall hours per crash investigation.

The Washington State Patrol (WSP) developed a very simple model to estimate the benefits of UAS. As part of its pilot program, the actual time to map each scene was recorded and compared to what the investigator estimated would be the time required using another technology. The difference in minutes was aggregated across all investigations. Using the Washington Department of Transportation estimate that each minute of Interstate road closure cost $350 per hour, WSP calculated a net savings to Washington State.27

21 Bergal, J. Drones Help Officials Investigate Auto Crashes but Raise Privacy Concerns. State Legislatures Magazine. September 2018. Accessed April 8, 2020. [Return to note 21]

22 Bergal, J. Drones Help Officials Investigate Auto Crashes but Raise Privacy Concerns. State Legislatures Magazine. September 2018. Accessed April 8, 2020. [Return to note 22]

23 Margaritoff, Marco. Austin Police Department to Hold Public Hearings to use Drones for Traffic Accident Investigations. August 27, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2020. [Return to note 23]

24 Gardner, Jeff. OVPD begins work with unmanned aerial vehicles. Tucson local media. March 7, 2018. Accessed April 12, 2020. [Return to note 24]

25 US DOJ. Considerations and Recommendations for Implementing an Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program. NCJ 250283. [Return to note 25]

26 Texas Government Code Chapter 423 Use of Unmanned Aircraft. [Return to note 26]

27 Durbin, R. Washington State Patrol Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Program Overview. Agency PowerPoint Presentation. 2020. [Return to note 27]