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Check Your Twelve O’Clock

October 1, 2010  By Mike Minnich

While the benefits of police-operated helicopters are indisputable, that doesn’t mean the future will reflect the status quo. Emerging technologies and enduring government budget squeezes are among the key issues looming on the horizon.

While the benefits of police-operated helicopters are indisputable, that doesn’t mean the future will reflect the status quo. Emerging technologies and enduring government budget squeezes are among the key issues looming on the horizon.

Edmonton's Flight Operations Unit keeps impeccable records to show the impact of its daily activities. (Photo courtesy Edmonton Police Services)


The previous four instalments of this series on rotary-wing aerial policing have surveyed everything from the past history of how this capability evolved in both the United States and Canada. . . to profiles on current Canadian police operators. . . to an overview of the hardware and software that turn a light observation helicopter into a highly capable crimefighter.

For this final article in the series, we look into the future. A number of experienced U.S. and Canadian operators and senior professional-association experts have shared their thoughts and insight in response to this basic question: “What are the most significant trends or issues that you can foresee police air units having to deal with across the next five years or so?”
Here’s what we learned.


Budget Squeeze
Government finances – at all levels and in both Canada and the U.S. – are under extreme pressure as the ongoing period of lacklustre economic growth  diminishes tax revenues, and ‘stimulus’ spending boosts deficits. Police air units are often erroneously seen as something of a “frill,” and many of the participants in this article voiced concern that it will be an uphill battle in the coming years just to maintain the status quo.

Once the economy bounces back, Calgary's Air Support Unit is expected to broaden its mission profile.
(Photo courtesy of Calgary Police)


“We’re challenged every year by city council, the police commission and our own higher management to demonstrate that our air unit is providing value for dollar,” Sgt. Chris Barbar of the Edmonton Police Service notes. “The ‘profit’ from an airborne law-enforcement unit, of course, comes in the form of demonstrated successful conclusion of incidents, and positive statistics when the helicopter is involved.”

“With this in mind, it’s imperative that airborne law-enforcement units keep impeccable records of the impact of their daily activities, including arrests, response times, calls attended, and incidents where the involvement of the helicopter resulted in a safe conclusion for the citizens and police officers,” Barbar notes. “We do this scrupulously at our Flight Operations Unit, and that helps us maintain the confidence and support of the people who make the budgetary decisions.”

Down in Calgary, chief pilot Cam Dutnall agrees. “I expect we’ll be dealing with limited budgets for some time into the future,” he says. “Our Air Support Unit will be limited to essential personnel and core training only, in order to be able to provide normal operational patrols and incident response. Once the economy more fully recovers, I hope we can broaden our mission profile to include greater support to our police specialty units, and also to create a training section integral to the ASU itself.”

Ground Threats
Although tragic events such as the May 2010 incident in the U.S. Caribbean possession of Puerto Rico – in which a police helicopter conducting a pursuit of a car that had fled a traffic stop came under gunfire from other individuals on the ground and one officer on board was killed and the other wounded – are so far very rare, there’s another potentially lethal ground threat that’s being increasingly encountered: laser strikes.

Sgt. Chris Barbar of Edmonton Police Services says they are challenged every year by city council, the police commission and higher management to demonstrate they are providing value for dollar.
(Photo courtesy of Edmonton Police Services)


“The use by individuals on the ground of handheld ‘green laser’ units  – which are actually intended for use by amateur astronomers to point-out stars or constellations  – to illuminate the cockpit of a low-flying aircraft is getting more and more common across North America,” Staff Sgt. Al Mack of Durham (Ont.) Regional Police reports. “These kinds of strikes can disorient the pilot and also cause eye damage, so the potential for causing a crash is definitely there.”

With the prevalence of such irresponsible activity expected to rise in the coming years, the response by the justice system will need to become more robust, as well, as the perpetrators are increasingly located, charged, and convicted. Staff Sgt. Mack recalls one such recent incident directed against Durham’s Air1 helicopter in August 2008:

“At approximately 2200 hours, Air1 was airborne at 1,200 feet over Ajax, Ont., assisting ground officers who were searching for a reported shotgun-armed individual. Suddenly, both aircrew were blinded by an intense green light coming from below. The pilot took immediate evasive action, but the laser beam tracked the aircraft and re-struck the cockpit about a dozen more times. Air1’s tactical flight officer was able to employ the forward-looking infrared camera to locate the person holding the laser unit,” he says. “The incident had been immediately radioed to the nearby police units that were on the ground regarding the original armed-individual report, and they were quickly vectored to the townhouse in question.”

“A 31-year-old Colombian was located and arrested,” Mack continues. “Although the Crown Prosecutor asked for a 90-day jail term, the judge agreed to a plea bargain of time served – which was just two days – plus a $1,000 fine.”

Under the Aeronautics Act, such misconduct could have resulted in a maximum fine of $100,000 and/or a five-year jail sentence. The extreme leniency shown in this representative case  – an incident that left both aircrew with visual-impairment after-effects for a number of minutes, and definitely impacted safe operation of the aircraft  – provides little deterrent value, and future cases will hopefully see more aggressive penalties.

As this article was being finalized, word arrived of yet another laser assault on a police helicopter. On August 16, 2010, an individual lasered Calgary’s HAWC1 helicopter during a nighttime patrol over that city. This is reportedly the 11th such incident – involving all aircraft types – just in Alberta so far this year (the total for all of Canada in 2009 was 108 incidents). The crew immediately donned protective goggles, but these then impair vision for the normal nighttime flight operations. The aircraft was struck two more times during the 30-minute search for the light source. Police units on the ground arrested 34-year-old Jason John McConnell, who’s been charged with one count of obstructing a police officer and one count of mischief endangering life, plus one charge under the Canadian Aircraft Regulations, and one under the Aeronautics Act. The three aircrew on board HAWC1 have been grounded until doctors can confirm that they suffered no permanent vision damage.

Technology, Training
Jim Di Giovanna is Education Program Manager with the U.S.-based Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) –  which has a very active Canadian chapter – is well-qualified to comment on a number of emerging issues. He first tackles technology.

A potential for police operations, the one-pound, 28-1/2-inch wingspan Wasp-III from AeroVironment has an endurance of 45 minutes, an operating altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet, and can carry an electro-optical camera or an IR imager.
(Photo by AeroVironment, Inc.)


“Operationally, the ‘big three’ remain seeing better in the dark (i.e., thermal imagers and night-vision goggles), navigation aids (especially moving-map displays) and communication,” he says. “There are at least three thermal-imaging companies who are touting new sensors, in systems offering high definition, digital imagery, increased magnification, and four-axis stabilization. There are also impressive capabilities being developed for covert high-altitude surveillance with long-lens cameras and a digital downlink – but that requires a fixed-wing aircraft, not a helicopter.  . . and currently that long-lens camera system usually costs more than the aircraft!”

Di Giovanna continues, “More and more agencies are converting to NVGs, but there are new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regs regarding NVG use and cockpit lighting that are making this conversion much more expensive. A few police agencies have asked for waivers to those regulations, and the FAA is still reviewing that. Lastly, the newer compact digital multiband radios are by far the comms unit of choice. . . their weight-to-capability ratio is unsurpassed,” he says.

Training and professional-development qualifications are another area where Di Giovanna foresees both challenges and new progress.

“I think recruitment of qualified aircrew will become increasingly difficult unless incentive programs are established to attract individuals to join an air unit, as well as government support for the flight training to let individuals acquire all the pilot ratings needed to do the job,” he suggests.

Di Giovanna says cost issues are forcing police agencies to look outside that profession to acquire helicopter pilots instead of taking a trained police officer and teaching him/her to be a pilot. “There are many pros and cons on this issue,” he goes on, “but in my opinion, the most mission-effective crew is a sworn police-officer pilot and a sworn-officer TFO.”

He also notes that ALEA, which has offered various training courses for police aircrew for a long time, is expanding those efforts even further.

“Beginning in 2011 at our annual conference in New Orleans, we’ll be offering a certified Advanced Thermal Imagery Thermographers Course on-site for attendees,” he reveals. “Also, we are developing an Advanced Tactical Flight Officers Course in conjunction with American Eurocopter’s AS350 full-motion level-7 simulator. This will be ALEA’s first venture into scenario-based training using a simulator, and we hope to offer this course two times a year in Grand Prairie, Texas, beginning in the summer of 2011.”

Unmanned Solution?
Perhaps the most radical scenario for the future is one that takes manned police patrol helicopters out of the skies almost entirely – replaced by small, lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Don Shinnamon is chief of police for Port St. Lucie, Fla., a veteran helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, and chairman of the aviation committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. He has some eye-opening thoughts on this subject.

“I think the future for police aviation is unmanned aircraft,” he flatly states. “The technology is already here today to give us the same downlinked video or infrared data from a one-pound or four-pound hand-launched mini-UAV that we are getting from manned helicopters. With today’s budgetary environment – and those pressures are going to continue for years – I don’t think all of the current police air units are going to survive in their current form. UAVs can be a very cost-effective alternative.”

One current obstacle is that the FAA in the U.S. so far will not allow routine use of non-military UAVs in the national airspace system. Shinnamon also sits on a technical working group of the National Institute of Justice, which is working with the FAA to create a memorandum of understanding that would allow law-enforcement agencies to use the very-small (less than four pounds) UAVs, and he’s hoping for a deal by the end of this year.

“Such units – say, a one-pound, hand-launched UAV – offer a max of 45 to 50 minutes in the air from a full charge on the battery,” he explains. “I can see these being extremely useful in a scenario where a patrol car rolls up on a robbery that’s just occurred, or a missing child or wandering Alzheimer’s patient situation, and the officer opens the trunk, takes out a ‘pelican’ case, launches the UAV, and within minutes is able to access video and/or thermal imagery of the immediate vicinity.”

Shinnamon specifically noted two products from Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment (www.avinc.com ) as being appropriate for police duty: the “micro-air-vehicle” Wasp-III and the slightly larger Raven RQ-11B. The one-pound, 28-1/2-inch-wingspan Wasp has an endurance of 45 minutes, an operating altitude of 500 to 1,000 feet, and can carry an electro-optical camera or an IR imager. The 4.2-pound Raven has a 54-inch wingspan, an endurance of 90 to 110 minutes (based on either a rechargeable battery or a single-use battery), a typical operating altitude of 100 to 500 feet, a speed of 17 to 44 knots, and a range of 6.2 miles (10 km). Its payload can be a forward and side-look EO or infrared camera. Both hand-launched micro-UAVs can use the same ground control station.

“As has been noted in other contexts like the military, today’s generation of young people – weaned on video games and rather sophisticated computer programs – will be naturals for operating UAVs,” Shinnamon says. “The on-scene incident commander will be able to access the downlinked images, make the appropriate decisions, and assign ground resources in the best-possible manner.”

“I constantly over-use the word ‘amazing’ in my discussions about UAVs and policing,” Shinnamon sums up with a smile, “but there really is no other way to describe their capabilities and potential.”

A Changing Playing Field
From the future implementation of UAVs to the ongoing challenges of recruitment, training and  justifying costs,  there’s little doubt that the aerial policing landscape is rife with challenges – both in Canada and south of the border. And while the overall goal remains the same in both countries,  one thing’s for certain  – it will be anything but the status quo in the months and years ahead.


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