When we talk about state-purpose aviation and operations, we mean all aviation activities serving a state institution and aimed at a well-defined task carried out in the interest of the state. They can be very wide ranging and can range from surveillance to site security.
Why have public authorities started using drones ?
Technological developments are not only being exploited by the commercial sector, but also by public authorities, who see it as their responsibility to keep up with the innovations offered by the technology. While for commercial and recreational use, drones can be best described and characterised as a “one tool – one function” pair, for public sector operations, drones are seen as a universal platform, a specialised flying device on which a range of data collection equipment relevant to the operation can be mounted. Drones can collect data (imagery or otherwise) and transmit it in real time from objects that are difficult to reach or undetectable, safely, cost-effectively and much faster than if it had to be done by ground-based approaches. In addition, fixed-wing instruments can survey very large areas in a short time and can remain airborne for hours.
The rapid and universal deployment of such assets can give state actors a head start in any intervention. The information provided by these assets can be targeted and accurate, saving lives and reducing the cost and damage to assets during an intervention.
The analysis and evaluation of data will become faster and more accurate with the advent of artificial intelligence, machine vision and new communication solutions, which will bring additional benefits to users. Not to mention the fact that the rapid development of IT solutions is giving rise to a series of new applications, which further demonstrate the justification for using these tools for public actors.
Public use can be categorised according to several aspects, but in this article we will explore and describe these operations using a use-area based approach.
Law enforcement operations
Drones can be used to effectively monitor road sections, detect the development of congestion immediately and thus make the necessary traffic control decisions. In addition, they are often used to identify non-compliant drivers at high priority locations, such as open line facilities (e.g. expressways) or even inland locations (traffic light intersections), where they do not target speeders but drivers who do not respect other rules (passing through a no-passing sign, etc.).
They can also provide a useful service at accident scenes. Many UAVs are equipped with data collection equipment capable of 3D precision imaging, which could be particularly useful in crime scene investigation, allowing a much faster on-site assessment. This means that the accident area can be cleared more quickly and the road section returned to traffic sooner than if only manual data collection were used. In addition, the spillover effects of the accident can be identified by a live image from above provided by one of these devices.
Public safety, surveillance
The drone can support traditional police patrols, helping to detect crime. It can record the action and track the escape routes of offenders. This makes police work easier and supports tracking in hard-to-reach locations.
Unmanned aerial vehicles can also be used to support criminal reconnaissance activities by enabling the covert surveillance of certain criminal circles and tracking the movements of the persons being observed, providing real-time visual information. This can be used to plan further targeted interventions, where appropriate. Such activities can be carried out by all organisations other than the police which also carry out reconnaissance activities (e.g. secret services, etc.).
The purpose of such applications is to identify, by means of optical and thermal cameras, if someone is trying to cross the border illegally. Drones – mainly fixed-wing devices – are able to remain in the air for several hours and carry out continuous surveillance of the border facility. Depending on the sophistication of the system, they can even perform autonomous mode operations, alerting the operator in the event of an anomaly, who, after analysing the images, can take the appropriate action and redirect ground troops. Such systems are able to detect not only an illicit border crossing (and subsequent escape), but also if the continuity of physical defences is disrupted (e.g. fence breach, etc.). For such purposes, tethered drones are often used, which, connected to a ground vehicle by a cable providing continuous power, can conduct continuous aerial surveillance along the border, combining the advantages of ground and air vehicles and surveillance.
In the case of incidents that have already taken place, aerial photography can support the investigative action on the ground. Their purpose can be very wide (some examples):
Establishing the approach and escape routes of a criminal, gathering preliminary information prior to the start of a detailed forensic investigation. Search for missing persons, especially in difficult to access, unsafe, large areas.
Personal protection, insurance
For the transportation of protected persons or for on-site personal security tasks, the added value of visual observation from above by the equipment in certain cases is an additional asset. For example, places not visible with fixed cameras, external surveillance in case of a taller building, etc.
Operations for disaster management purposes
Such flights are of particular relevance in the event of natural, industrial or other disasters, in order to assess the exact location and extent of the actual disaster area. On the basis of this information, human intervention can become more precise and targeted.
Some examples of such use include:
In water management, accurate assessment of damage caused by flooding, inland flooding, hailstorms. Continuous assessment of built infrastructure (reservoir, dam, etc.). Environmental controls. In case of industrial/chemical disaster, continuous analysis of air quality and determination of concentrations of harmful substances in the air. In the event of a weather emergency, assessment of the area and, on this basis, further decision support (e.g. ordering road closures). In the event of a mass casualty incident, rapid on-site assessment. Improve fire fighting by detecting fire nests. Search for persons in distress, support rescue. Accurate damage assessment and visual inspection during natural or other disasters.
Many people’s lives could be saved if the tools needed to help were available or could be accessed quickly in the event of an emergency. This can be helped by drones, which can arrive at the scene of an emergency before the ambulance and deliver life-saving equipment (e.g. defibrillator, breathing balloon, medicine) that can be used by the helpers on the scene until the ambulance arrives.