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Trends In Law Enforcement Aviation: It’s Not Just About Drones

Posted 1 years 8 days ago ago by jhadmin

Given all the attention being paid to drones these days, one might think that they are all that is happening in law enforcement rotorcraft aviation.

This isn’t the case. Yes, drones are a big trend in law enforcement aviation, but they aren’t the only trend. Here’s what else is going on, based on what law enforcement  aviation officers, and equipment suppliers are telling us.

NVGs Are Gaining Ground, Including White-Phosphor NVGs

Night vision goggles (NVGs) are not news. But the widespread use of NVGs by law enforcement (LE) aviation units is news –and this usage is growing in LE units big and small. “I’m seeing night vision goggles becoming prevalent,” said Dan Schwarzbach, executive director of the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA). “Many aerial units that would not have used NVGs in the past are using them today and making their LE flight operations much more effective.”

In addition to allowing LE helicopters to fly more low-light missions, NVGs are allowing these pilots to operate at higher altitudes during these missions. “This gives them more time to respond if their helicopters have a mechanical emergency while flying,” Schwarzbach said. “Higher altitudes mean safer operations, and that’s what NVGs are providing to an increasing number of LE aviation units.”

Historically, NVGs have used green-phosphor displays, which means that the enhanced video is displayed in gradations of green visible light. But now there’s a trend to use white-phosphor NVGs, which shows the video using white light gradations rather than green.

Compared to green phosphor NVGs, white phosphor images stimulate the eye’s cone cells more effectively, said Tony Tsantles, one of Aviation Specialties Unlimited’s (ASU) NVG instructors. “This is said to cause less fatigue for the user, and a sharper level of contrast.”

The result: ASU’s sales of white-phosphor NVGs has been steadily increasing in volume since the product was introduced in 2013. “Short of providing exact figures, it’s safe to say the industry has continued nearly exclusive expansion in white phosphorus, just from what I’m told by our sales staff,” Tsantles noted. “We’ve also received feedback from the community stating that they have preferred white in urban areas for reduced halo presence in those environments.”

Advanced Electronics Catching On

White-phosphor NVGs aren’t the only advanced technology taking hold in LE helicopters. Modern all-glass cockpits plus state-of-the-art navigation, mission control, and  thermal/multi-spectral imaging components are also making their way onto the flight deck. According to Tal Golan, Universal Avionics’ manager of rotorcraft business development, LE aviation units are seeking enhanced air-to-ground/air-to-air connectivity, integrated mission control, and advanced navigation. He said. “Swift large data transfers are key. Aerial and ground navigation integration are key too.”

Looking ahead, Golan expects LE helicopters to also “expand their operations to all weather operations. We believe it is inevitable that the air-wing/flight department will incorporate pilot helmet-mounted displays combined with Enhanced Vision System.” 

In this latter scenario, Golan said that LE helicopter pilots will see real-time ADS-B data on their helmet-mounted displays; along with drone/other aircraft traffic in their vicinity and simplified navigation such as a feature Universal Avionics will be offering in the future, called “Fly by Sight.”

In the more immediate future, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department plans to be adding FLIR Systems’ Star SAFIRE 380-HDc cameras to their helicopter fleet. These camera gimbals offer 120-times optical magnification, a MWIR thermal imager, and optional HD color and a low-light camera; among other features. “The picture quality on the FLIR 380-HD is just unreal,” said Deputy Darren Dollard. “It will enhance our ability to do our jobs.”

Moving Away from Dedicated Downlinks

When LE helicopters first started sending live video and telemetry to ground-based officers, they did so over specific police channels received by proprietary ground stations. 

This is still done today, but the times are changing. Thanks to advances in broadband wireless communications, “I think the newest trend is not having to have dedicated receive sites,” said APSA’s Schwarzbach. “Today, helicopter pilots can take what’s being seen on aircraft cameras and downlink it via cloud-based applications to users on smartphones and tablets in their patrol cars.”

As U.S. wireless telephone networks upgrade to 5G broadband capacities (up to 100 Gbps, which could be a hundred times faster than 4G), broadband data transfers between helicopters and the ground will become easier and more robust than ever before.

Third-Party Maintenance Moving into LE Aviation

Aircraft maintenance is expensive; both in terms of having technicians on the police department’s payroll to service and support LE helicopters, plus the tools and machinery needed to do such work in-house.

“The trend of rising maintenance costs are being felt across the aviation community, with small governments being especially susceptible to rising costs,” said Shane Engelauf. He is chief pilot with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office (CCSO) Air Support Unit in Punta Gorda, Florida. “The ability to get parts on time at a reasonable cost often puts smaller aviation units out of service for extended periods,” he said.

To counter this trend, the CCSO has contracted its helicopter maintenance work to a third-party supplier. “We have entered a maintenance contract with Brunner Aerospace,” Engelauf said. “For a monthly fee that is far less than a ‘power by the hour’ program, we are able to project cost and have parts when needed.”

“Some of the benefits to our maintenance contract are fixed overhaul costs and priority parts access, yearly mechanic and pilot maintenance training, and access to qualified mechanics in order to conduct higher levels of maintenance at our hangar,” he added. “This allows us to budget and control costs.”

Doing More With Limited Resources

It is no surprise to anyone in LE aviation that budgets are tight, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. “The economy has not been good for several years, outside of a few exceptions,” said Schwarzbach. “This has affected the funding of law enforcement aviation units.”

Tight money is forcing LE aviation units to do their jobs with the resources they currently have, and to stretch these resources to support even more missions.

“Counties are trying to do as much as they can with the equipment they have,” said CCSO Chief Pilot Engelauf. “For example, our unit conducts law enforcement firefighting and we will begin our over-water rescue program later this year, all with the use of our primary patrol platform. As public servants we are always striving to provide the citizens of Charlotte County the best services that are available. In Charlotte County we will strive to provide any and all aviation services our equipment is capable of.”

For some LE aviation units, working with what they have isn’t easy. The Stratford Police Department’s Eagle 1 rescue helicopter in Stratford, Connecticut, is a prime example: The operation and maintenance of this reconditioned 1968 UH-1 is funded through the non-profit Nelson-D’Ancona Foundation, which relies on corporate and private donations to keep Eagle 1 fueled and flying.

The helicopter itself is a donation to the Stratford Police Department (SPD) from the federal government’s 1033 Program that transfers military surplus equipment to civilian law enforcement agencies. The pilots and crew who keep Eagle 1 in service are officers with other duties at the SPD and nearby law enforcement agencies, plus some volunteers.

Despite the very real limits it operates under, Eagle 1 flies all kinds of missions: from rescue and relief flights (including a month spent in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) to aerial command-and-control during critical incidents, surveillance/photographic flights, and counter-drug missions. Still, a lack of regular funding does hamper Eagle 1's capabilities.

“The biggest problem we have right now is interoperable communications,” said Captain Alan V. Wilcoxson, the Stratford Police Department’s patrol division commander. “Post 9/11, we were able to get a few police radios. But a lot of cities and departments have since upgraded their communications to digital platforms that are encrypted. This leaves us with radios that are obsolete, and the need to get new codes and permissions from neighboring departments so that we can communicate with them.”

Yes, Drones Are Also a Trend

In describing the trends above, we steered clear of drones. It is now time to include them among the trends affecting LE aviation, because unmanned aircraft are catching on with first responder agencies nationwide.

“Drones are starting to take a more prominent role in law enforcement and public safety aviation,” said Schwarzbach. “The good side is that many law enforcement agencies that didn’t have manned aircraft now have access to an aerial asset. I am also seeing agencies that have manned aircraft operating unmanned aircraft as complements to their units.”

There are many ways that drones can aid manned aircraft operations. For instance, “we’ve seen an uptick in drone operations for our SWAT units,” said San Diego Deputy Dollard. “In the past, when they would go to hit a house, SWAT would use us. But now they’re transitioning into using drones when they can, because drones are quieter.”

Drones allow LE aviation units to save their manned helicopters for more complex missions; such as search and rescue where being able to physically land medics and lift victims to safety are key. In turn, being able to perform aerial surveillance using drones allows an LE unit to do more work with its existing helicopter fleet; keeping per-mission costs down at a time when budgets are tight.

A Pilot’s View

A succinct LE pilot’s view of how drones and manned aircraft can work together is provided by Engelauf, the Charlotte County, Florida, pilot. “Florida has the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act limiting the use of drones for law enforcement,” he notes. (This act prevents Florida police from capturing images of private property and the people on it without their written consent.) Even with these circumstances, “drones are a great tool, and have their place,” Engelauf said. “I have had the opportunity to work alongside many different types of drones while in the military, and I have found you still can't replace the pilot in the seat of a helicopter,” he said. “The point of view from a drone is much like looking through a soda straw when compared to the visibility out of a helicopter. As for working safely in the same airspace as drones? “It is very dependent on the pilots and communication between the drone operator and the pilot,” he said.

It is fair to say that drones are among the many trends having an impact on LE aviation, and affecting how LE helicopter pilots and crews will be executing their missions in years to come. The news is that drones do not appear likely to replace manned helicopters; but may complement them. The visual benefits provided by drones may well boost the demand for manned helicopters; just as the deployment of personal computers led to many aspects of life being computerized.

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