In the future, you might be watching a fictional crime scene on TV with your grandchildren and realize that most of the actions are performed by drones. This may sound odd to you, but it’s already a reality in many countries. Unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aircraft systems are being used for law enforcement and are expected to be one of the most efficient ways to deal with crimes in the near future.

Only a decade ago, using flying robots to solve crimes seemed unthinkable, almost as part of a science fiction novel. However, today all of this has become a reality, and police agencies all over the world are increasingly turning to drones for help. Just consider that in the U.S. alone, at least 910 state and local bureaus as well as public safety agencies have acquired law enforcement drones in recent years. And the number is expected to rise as the years go by.

Drones are also helping surveying storm damages, checking almost inaccessible areas, inspecting oil and gas properties, finding possible construction sites, and in many more circumstances. But their use by police and other law enforcement agencies have received the most public attention. Here are just a few of the areas where drones are used for law enforcement:

1. Road crash reconstruction

When drones are paired with a 3D mapping software, they allow police investigators to create a 3D rendering of a crash site. This can save not only money and time but also ensures higher levels of details and roads need to be closed to traffic for shorter periods of time. Even considering the high costs of the equipment and the training, that sum of money would still be much lower than the amount paid for overtime work. The positive results also include much less time for a road to be closed and traffic blocked. What would be completed in 3 hours by human investigators could be done in less than 45 minutes by an unmanned aerial vehicle. In another study which simulated a 2-car crash, the reconstruction team spent 1 hour and a half to collect data with a laser scanner. The same task took only 25 minutes to be completed with drones.

2. Suspects investigation

Law enforcement officers often have to investigate suspects and locate active shooters. In this scenario, drones can help to provide many details at a safe distance, allowing officers to formulate a strategy in real time. Imagine in the future if a drone the size of an insect could keep watch inside a bunker or building. These technologically-advanced drones might fly into space and produce a 3D scan. The situation inside the building will be recreated for the police officers without risking lives. Lives will also be spared by not sending a negotiator into that space. A drone with a screen attached could still ensure a face-to-face conversation with the hostage and hostage-taker. The same drones can enhance awareness of the current situation during a hostage crisis as well as in the case of a bomb threat. Drones, indeed, can be flown over a device or building to obtain images that would help the bomb technicians. All of this is possible without exposing them to potential risks.

3. Crime scene analysis

The same technologies and mapping systems used by drones for traffic collision can help investigators to map out crime scenes. The result is often a more accurate view of the actual crime scene, instead of an animated representation of the body. More details are collected and can be used for the following investigations. For example, in case of a crime scene with dust on the floor or blood, there’s the risk of people tracking through as well as contaminating the scene with footprints or fingerprints. If you have ever watched at least one episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, you know that a crime scene should be left exactly as it was. All sorts of contaminations can compromise the results of the investigations and result in an incorrect verdict. On the opposite, when police officers can send a drone to photograph a crime scene, scans of every detail can be collected without disturbing or tampering the whereabouts. Drones used for law enforcement can also help police locate discarded murder weapons. Another use is to assist in solving and prosecuting crimes. If someone started shooting at people in the street, the police could send a drone in a shorter period of time and get more details about the scene itself, like the exact curve of the road or where the round casings dropped.

4. Surveillance

Drones can provide a new point of view for police officers, who might instead find themselves in an unfavorable and risky position. By using drones, they can complete standard surveillance operations without being spotted. Drones, in this case, represent the best opportunity to collect a detailed view of the area without compromising on safety and are indeed used for finding missing persons, drug interdiction, as well as for criminal surveillance and pursuit. In February 2018, Dutch police discovered and then shut down an illegal marijuana grow house. They noticed that the roof of that house was the only one in the whole neighborhood not covered in snow. And that is an extreme rarity in winter in the Netherlands. Heat lamps used inside that grow house made the roof warmer and easier to identify during winter. In the future, UAVs could be used for surveilling cities from above. They could make spotting these grow homes much more effortless. If they equipped with special spectroscopic sensors, they could even detect meth labs and drug storage sites.

5. Crowd monitoring

Drones can help law enforcement officers to see deep in the crowd, especially during large gatherings, concerts, protests or other crowded events. If someone commits a crime or runs into a mass of people, it is possible to track the suspect in the crowd without putting other passersby at risk. Besides, if someone needs assistance, police officers can immediately intervene. Imagine a child missing at a crowded amusement park, a hiker lost in the wilderness, an Alzheimer’s patient wandering from home, or a runaway teen hitchhiking her way out of town. Police surveillance drones equipped with cameras, license-plate readers, and facial-recognition software could one day soon increase the probability of locating them—not to mention the speed at which they’re found. Using drones to locate missing persons is 50 times quicker than to put people on horseback, motorcycles, bikes, or on foot. Besides missing persons, drones could also help to identify criminals in a crowd. That would be a live version of Google Earth, but with a highly-advanced thermographic camera. It also allows police officers to rewind the videos and go back to find details they didn’t notice the first time these events occurred.

Privacy and security concerns

Together with the development of drone technology, civil liberties movements and ordinary citizens are becoming more worried about the possible consequences of UAV ending up in the wrong hands. UAV drones used for aerial security and for crash reconstruction are often not affected by these concerns. However, when UAV is used for aerial protection by government agencies, there are still worries that the government might be creating hidden profiles of each individual. By following us around, UAV drones could be collecting personal information and precious data that could be backed up with mobile phone tracking and video data to build up a 360° database of everyone’s daily schedule and movements. This concern was raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and they described it as a “nightmare scenario.”

The multiple positive uses of UAV

UAVs are suitable to be employed for law enforcement, spying, private investigation, military inspection, spying, disaster recovery, border patrol, traffic management, search and rescue, drone journalism, and photography. For example, drones produced by JTT UAV saved lives and protected the coasts of Australia in 2017. In more recent years, UAVs from the same Chinese manufacturer were appreciated in many other countries. In 2018 the Thai police office invited the JTT UAV staff to provide intense training on how to pilot their drones. The training covered both the basics and included a practical test of the officers’ new trained flight abilities. The Thai police staff highly appreciated the expertise and knowledge shared by this company, and some of them even learned a few sentences in Chinese to express their gratitude.

Such international partnerships are becoming more common and allowing agencies from several countries to bypass the initial confusion and barriers. Except when used by government agencies, a big part of the UAV market growth comes from the civil and commercial sectors. The UAV market is expected to grow by 14.15% within 2025. An estimated 3 million drones were manufactured in 2017, according to research firm Gartner. The main segments promoting this growth come from the civil and commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Besides these uses, UAV are now helping agencies and departments from all over the world to save money, energies, and unnecessary workforce.

Drone applications for law enforcement may be the best way to deal with crimes and various security threats. However, the primary challenge is convincing privacy advocates who view drones as devices that intrude into our private lives. They may actually be right, so this is why we need relevant regulations that would govern the use of drones. Nowadays, drones are not just for fun and are ready to transform the way we live and work in our everyday life.