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When will Drones Replace Police Helicopter Pilots

Drones are everywhere and they seem to be cheap, right? When will they replace police helicopter crews over American and European cities?

This UAV was developed by Barnard Microsystems Limited in the UK for science applications

Like helicopter pilots everywhere I have sat back and quietly watched the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Drone industries absolutely explode over the past five to eight years. Almost daily it seems there is a new drone or UAV unveiled somewhere with its own unique set of capabilities that make it superior to competitors.

Citizens everywhere are upset at the proliferation of drones and the perceived intrusiveness they bring to personal liberties. Other citizens seem to believe that all helicopter pilots will one day be replaced by drone aircraft.  There seems to be an undercurrent of belief that instead of manned police helicopters patrolling the skies over their cities; it will all be unmanned or autonomous drones.

Many local police and sheriff departments are snatching up their own UAV-Drones. In October of 2011 the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department located just north of Houston Texas, purchased their own MK-II ShadowHawk Unmanned Helicopter from Vanguard Defense Industries for about $220,000. Unlike other smaller battery operated drones, Montgomery County's helicopter has almost a 6' wingspan, weighs 29 lbs and runs on jet fuel. 

Even in my own air unit I recently overheard two of the younger members opining as to whether they would ever be replaced by drones.

While none of us can fully predict what the makeup of the police helicopter crew will be in 30-40 years I think we can make some educated guesses based on the facts at hand.

At any rate, consider this article my opinion on the topic of unmanned drones replacing human helicopter pilots and crews in the coming years. 

This is a quite a large topic with many sub-topics; I will not attempt to cover every single angle in this one article.

In order to begin a talk of drones replacing law enforcement helicopter crews one has to really try to compartmentalize the discussion. Currently the drone market represents everything from tiny nanobots to the newest MQ-8C Fire Scout Fire Scout based on the Bell 407 airframe, all the way up to the autonomous heavy left Lockheed Martin/Kaman K-Max helicopter currently operated by the Marine Corps, (only two were built and one has since crashed.)

Cost of the new MQ-8C Fire Scout is estimated to be $18.2 million per unit

So to even discuss drones vs. real helicopter crews where do you start? Do you just compare same size drones to same size law enforcement helicopters? Or do you compare capabilities of the drone vs. capabilities of the real helicopter crew?

We have to have a starting point. Through reading, research, aviation experience and a little application of brain power I have come up with three primary points or questions that I think apply most prominently to the discussion. Again the question is; will drones ever replace police helicopter crews.

  • First, what is the purpose of replacing real pilots with pilot-less drones to begin with? Is there even a need to replace human police helicopter crews?
  • Next; is it cost effective to replace real pilots with pilot-less drones? Many people assume that it is but you might be surprised.
  • Finally, while the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

Now perhaps the even bigger question to ask is; could an unmanned drone aircraft ever be as effective as a police helicopter crew with two humans, two brains and 4 eyeballs working as a team inside the helicopter, versus a crew sitting at a control station on the ground miles away? While this is perhaps the best question to ask, I am not going to address it in this article simply because I don’t think we need to go that far. There is a ton of published data that speaks directly to the other three points, which we can use to help us reach a reasonable conclusion.

But to answer the question, I don’t really know how one would argue that taking the helicopter crew out of a helicopter and putting them in a ground control station miles away, with all of their visual input coming through a single camera lense, could possible enhance the overall mission.

As a reminder, for this discussion I am not talking about small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) that a police officer or SWAT Commander can pull out of their trunk or command vehicle and deploy, keeping it in line of site below 400’ agl, in order to scout a suspect’s residence or perhaps even search a small field for a lost child. I am talking about replacing entire helicopter crews that operate over virtually every large American City or European City for that matter.

Let me also say at this point that I have no ax to grind with the drone industry or the small UAV industry. Any tool that can help a police officer catch the bad guy, or complete his/her mission safely or find that missing child, is fine by me. 

What is the real purpose of replacing pilots and crews with pilot-less drones?

On the surface it seems as though there are only two real reasons to replace a live pilot with a pilotless drone. The first and foremost is to remove the pilot from hostile combat situations. No doubt that lives of pilots have already been saved since drones took to the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan in the year 2000, (operated first by the CIA.)

The second reason to replace a manned aircraft with a drone is that the amount of time the drone can stay in the air is now limited to fuel instead of pilot-human needs. That means keeping that eye in the sky up there for as long as 14 or 20 hours depending on the drone.

Are police helicopter pilots and crews, operating over American Cities, working in hostile combat situations? For the most part, no they are not. While a police helicopter has been taken down by gunfire before, we are not losing police helicopters to RPG’s the last time I checked. No great need to replace the police helicopter crew for this reason.

Ok, how about loiter time over a city? Now from a law enforcement standpoint I can see the benefit of hanging a powerful Star SAFIRE Flir at 20,000’ over a city, for 15 or 20 hours at a time, and when a priority call comes out you just zoom in on the address and start getting live feed of the unfolding crime. Sounds pretty cool huh; except for those citizens who are really concerned about big brother watching their every move- not so cool for them.

To answer this question we have to look forward to question number three. Will the FAA ever allow unmanned drones to operate over populated American cities? I think by the end of the article you, like me, will conclude that few county and municipal governments will see neither the need nor the cost effectiveness in putting a drone camera above their city for 15 or 20 hour stretches.

While it may seem that we have already answered the question of whether there is even a need to replace police helicopter pilots with drones, these next two areas I think are the real eye openers. 

Moving on to the cost effectiveness of operating pilot-less drones 

Placing a drone in the sky for long periods of time is a wartime tactic. If we are going to discuss replacing piloted helicopter crews with unmanned drones, then I think we need to compare apples to apples.  

Let’s take a quick look at what it takes to operate the most basic drone over hostile territory.  

Enter the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Drone.

The MQ-1 Predator Drone is a piston powered base line drone with a per unit cost of about $5 million

The very first thing you need to understand is that the Predator Drone falls out of the sky on a fairly regular basis, for a variety of reasons but almost never due to enemy action. I have heard it said that the MQ-1 Predator does not have any redundant systems on board. If the computer takes a dump and re-boots, that particular aircraft becomes a smoking hole in the ground. The following information from Wikipedia seems to confirm this.

Note-while this seems like it should fall under a safety argument, it also falls under the cost effective argument as you will see. Making a reliable unmanned drone with numerous redundant systems is expensive.

“By the start of the United States Afghan campaign in 2001, the USAF had acquired 60 Predators, and said it had lost 20 of them in action. Few if any of the losses were from enemy action, the worst problem apparently being foul weather, particularly icy conditions.  A few of the later USAF Predators were fitted with de-icing systems, along with an uprated turbocharged engine and improved avionics.

As of March 2009, the U.S. Air Force had 195 MQ-1 Predators and 28 MQ-9 Reapers in operation. Predators and Reapers fired missiles 244 times in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. A report in March 2009 indicated that U.S. Air Force had lost 70 Predators in air crashes during its operational history. Fifty-five were lost to equipment failure, operator error, or weather. Four have been shot down in Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq. Eleven more were lost to operational accidents on combat missions. In 2012, the Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk were described as "... the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force fleet."

Here is where we get into the cost effective part

So what is the current cost of a single MQ-1 Predator Drone? For the most basic, piston powered drone that General Atomics makes the costs is 4.5 to $5 million. Remember we are comparing a piston powered fixed wing drone to a turbine powered police helicopter. We haven’t started comparing helicopter drones to police helicopters.

So now we have some understanding of the weaknesses of some drone aircraft, and with that in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to put a drone in the skies over a combat zone.

According to this 2012 US News Article drones are only slightly cheaper overall than conventional fighter jets.

“But a new report released this week by the American Security Project, or ASP, concludes that most military drones are only "generally slightly cheaper to both acquire and operate than conventional fighter jets."

“Despite claims to the contrary, unmanned planes require a large crew: There is one remote pilot, another remote crew member to operate the valuable cameras mounted on many, and "because a drone is not operated individually, but as part of a system consisting of several aircraft, sensors, ground control, and satellite linkages, the number of personnel needed to operate a Predator Combat Air Patrol (CAP) is estimated to exceed 80 people," states the report. It refers to the Predator unmanned plane that has been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and allegedly in Yemen. The number of crew members needed to operate other drone fleets composed of four aircraft can approach 130, ASP concludes.”

Note- the Predator drone has always been sold to the government in groups of 4, along with a ground control station and associated equipment. The $4.5 to $5 million is a per unit costs and does not include the cost of any associated equipment such as the ground control station. Dividing the above numbers by 4, you can see that it would still require an average of 20 to 40 people to operate a single drone as they are currently operated in the combat zone.

Remember too that the MQ-1 Predator and its predecessor the MQ-1C Grey Eagle are the most basic of all military drones. The next step up in the General Atomics line is the MQ-9 Reaper which is powered by a Honeywell TPE331-10GD turboprop engine with 900 shaft horse power. While we are still talking about fixed wing drones, the Reaper allows us to now compare turbine engine drone to turbine engine police helicopter.

The turboprop MQ-9 Reaper has an estimated per unit cost of $16.9 million

Of course the reaper has an all-around more robust electronics package to for its war time mission but what is the price of the Reaper? The most recent unit cost for an MQ-9 Reaper has been put at 16.9 million. Sure a civilian law enforcement version would not need the weapons targeting systems and such, so the price would be somewhat cheaper. But anyone who thinks a drone aircraft capable of fully replacing a police helicopter crew is going to be an affordable solution has probably not conducted any serious research on the matter.  

The same report concludes that drones have a "greater tendency toward mishaps" than piloted warplanes. There goes your safety factor again.

So back to the first two questions we asked at the beginning of this section. What is the purpose of replacing a police helicopter crew? We determined there is no real need to replace the crew due to hostile environment.

That only leaves us to consider “loiter time over a city” as a reason to replace the police helicopter crew, in my opinion. I think we have shown that the combination of safety concerns (for now) and cost of trying to duplicate a drones loiter time in the combat zone, with loiter time over a populated city, are both cost prohibitive and prohibitive from a safety standpoint. So we have answered our first two questions already, right?

Opening up US skies over populated cities to drones?

While the FAA has been ordered by congress to integrate drones into the U.S. Air Space system by 2015, will the final rule(s) allow pilot-less drones to ever operate over populated American Cities?

The FAA has always gone through great lengths to protect the public on the ground from the aircraft flying above its head. That is why helicopters are generally restricted from operating below 500’ above ground level while over populated areas, and fixed wing are restricted from operating below 1000’ feet agl over populated areas.

Both altitudes are based on the minimum altitude that a safe landing can be conducted in the event of an engine out situation in either aircraft, per the FAA. FAA rules also prohibit a pilot from operating a helicopter or fixed wing aircraft within 500’ or 1000’ respectively, vertically or horizontally, of any person except while taking off and landing. The FAA takes public safety seriously.

To get an idea what the FAA rule might look like, and what drone manufacturers are going to have to do to comply with it, I scoured the internet and came up with this article on Popular Mechanics.com

Popular Mechanics did a great job of going right to the source for the best answers. John Walker is a former FAA director and now co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology.

As a starting point here is the FAA’s current rule regarding UAVs. Currently the FAA allows unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or (UAV) to fly as long as their operators keep them in sight, fly below 400 feet, and avoid populated areas and airports. These are the small drones that are being heavily marketed to police and law enforcement agencies by the UAV industry. Law Enforcement and government agencies have to register their UAVs and jump through some extra hoops, but that is generally the rule.

But coming up with safety standards for large drones that fly at altitude (think 5, 10, 20,000 feet) it is far more complicated than regulating the operation of an RC plane flying along at treetop level or a little higher, within the operator's line of sight.

The Popular Mechanics article states;

“Aerospace companies and the Pentagon are developing systems that combine radar, cameras, or other sensors with software that will detect aircraft and change course to avoid them. Some of the systems rely on ground stations, while more advanced versions are incorporated into the drones.

This solution comes with engineering drawbacks, however. "By hanging that type of technology on an unmanned aircraft, you start adding a lot of weight and draining a lot of power," says Viva Austin, the civilian official in charge of the Army's ground-based sense-and-avoid project.

John Walker, a former FAA director and co-chair of a federal advisory panel that is developing standards for UAS technology, says technical demands will likely slow the pace of drone adoption. For example, the panel may recommend that the FAA require sense-and-avoid systems that will steer a drone away from potential collision courses, not just perform the simple "climb or descend" instructions current systems give a pilot.

That requires a flight-control computer powerful enough to handle complex algorithms. "What we're talking about for separation assurance is climb, descend, turn left, turn right," Walker says. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of modeling and simulation."

The result? Walker predicts manufacturers and operators will have to invest a lot of money and years of work to meet the pending FAA requirements.”

John Walker’s statements in the above article seem to be in line with how the FAA has always taken public safety at heart. Clearly Mr. Walker does not believe the technology has even been developed yet that will meet the FAA rule he believes will be forthcoming.

To sum up this part of the discussion; it is likely that at some point in the future unmanned aircraft will be operating in some capacity of populated cities, but I think we are many years away from local law enforcement agencies seeing it as a cost effective or necessary alternative to the manned police helicopter as we know it today. In short, if you are a young person hoping for a career in Airborne Law Enforcement, I wouldn’t worry myself over the idea of drones replacing police helicopters any time in the near future.

Drones already operating over unpopulated areas in the U.S.

Just in case you thought I missed it, yes there are a number of full size drones already operating in the U.S., over unpopulated area. Oh, and some of them have already crashed.

Customs & Border Protection

In October of 2005 the Department of Homeland Security deployed a single Predator B drone for the purposes of border protection.

But the drone’s border duty was cut short when it crashed on April 25, 2006 when the ground based pilot experienced a lock up of the displays on the primary control console and switched to a backup console. The aircraft’s engine was inadvertently shut off and the plane descended and crashed near Nogales Arizona.

Today the Customs and Border Protection Office of Air and Marine operate at least seven MQ-9 Predator B (Reaper) drones on both the northern and southern borders as well as a marine version.

According to information provided by U.S. Customs & Border Inspection the currently operate the following drones;

OAM (Office of Air & Marine) operates three Predator B’s from Libby Army Airfield in Sierra Vista, Arizona; and two from Grand Forks Air Force Base, in North Dakota.

OAM also operates a maritime variant UAS, called the Guardian. OAM’s two Guardian aircraft fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida; and Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas.

OAM expects to employ the Predator B throughout the border regions with command and control from a network of ground control stations across the country.

No question that the drone invasion is upon us. But hopefully the coming evolution of the skies will be reasonable and safe one.

Only two of the Lockeed Martin/Kaman Kmax autonomous helicopters were ever built. One has since crashed. Estimated per unit cost-over $20 million

Happy flying!