We Already Have Police Helicopters, So What’s the Big Deal Over Drones?

As drone regulation legislation works its way through Congress and the 30 (so far) state legislatures where it has been introduced, one question that we hear a lot these days is, “we’ve had police helicopters for a long time, what’s so different about drones?”

For one thing, police helicopters do raise privacy issues. Because of the expense of using manned police aircraft, privacy invasions have not risen to the level that legislators have felt compelled to address them, but incidents do happen. In 2005, for example, a police helicopter supposedly monitoring a street protest in New York City instead trained its infrared camera for a prolonged period on a couple making love on a pitch-black rooftop patio. Any police helicopter that followed a citizen around town for no reason, or hovered over the backyard of innocent homeowners whose daughter was sunbathing with her friends, would probably draw complaints. With drones, scenarios like those are bound to happen much more frequently. And that’s because there are some critical distinctions between manned and unmanned aircraft.

1. Drones erase “natural limits” on aerial surveillance

Manned helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are expensive to acquire, staff, and maintain. A police helicopter costs from $500,000 to $3 million to acquire, and $200-$400 an hour to fly. Manned aircraft are large, complex machines requiring expert ground crews, multiple shifts of pilots and co-pilots, and (unlike drones which can often be hand-launched) runways or helipads. Such expenses mean there are inevitably going to be far fewer of them—which in turn means the police are likely to use them only where they are most needed.

With drones, on the other hand, it’s easy to foresee a day when even a professional police drone could be acquired for less than a hundred dollars, including maintenance costs. And if technology and laws eventually reach the point where drones can fly autonomously, they would become even cheaper because police departments wouldn’t even have to pay staff to control or monitor them.

2. Drones make new forms of privacy invasion possible

In addition, there are some kinds of privacy invasion that are only possible with drones. For example, micro-drones maneuvering into intrusive places; even the smallest manned helicopter can’t fly into a garage or hover unseen outside a third-story bedroom window. Or (as I’ve written about before), the fact that drones can be silent; the loud noise a helicopter makes serves as a crude kind of “notice” that one may be under surveillance from the air. Silent or high-flying drones that can’t be heard provide no such notice.

3. Drones’ capabilities are likely to expand even further in the future

The fact that drones are so inexpensive will have another consequence: because so many drones will be out there, and so many people innovating with them, it’s very likely that the technology will develop new capabilities that have never existed for police helicopters. Many of these may be things that haven’t even occurred to anyone yet, but to pick just one possibility, it could involve the ability for swarms of drones to act in increasingly sophisticated, coordinated fashion to carry out surveillance that a single manned aircraft could never perform. And drones will permit continuous, 24/7 surveillance in a way that we haven’t seen with manned aircraft. First, because there will be many more of them, but also because manned craft must return to the ground regularly for shift changes and refueling; drone technology, on the other hand, is moving toward allowing unmanned craft to stay aloft for ever-longer periods of time, for example through solar power, ground-based laser recharging, or the use of blimps.

View comments (6)
Read the Terms of Use


The big deal is we have no legal framework limiting drones. It's all untested waters. the smart play is the conservative play. Presume all limits to other surveillance technologies apply here-Get a warrant or the only legal view is a public view.

Mouthy Boston

As humans, once we have a new tool we tend to use it. Tools like this will push the edge of constitutionality by law enforcement and should at least be discussed nowadays.


I sympathize with the intent here, but I'm not convinced.

Arguement 1) They are cheaper. The taxpayer in me isn't upset about this.

Arguement 2) Police helicopters spy one nude sunbathers (I'm sure that's common) except that drones are expected to be autonomously piloted. I'm pretty sure the computer doesn't want to see my tits. (never know...)

Arguement 3) They might do something more in the future. This part I get, but there seems to be a simple solution, and it's not holding back a technology, it is regulating it. Altitude, oversight, whatever.

A more compelling argument might be the possibility of failure. A helicopter pilot might be able to steer towards a field in a failure but a drone could plow right into a preschool.

Another is the Electronic warfare/cyber threat. If the military is getting hacked, then the police's cyber defense isn't going to stop someone that wants to crash one into a target.

I'm sure there are more. Keep up the fire.


Domestic drone usage is ill-conceived, elitist, and end-runs our inherent Constitutional protections.

Here are two (2), very well-produced, videos that anchor my points:

Emmy Award-winning newscaster Shad Olson’s ‘The Great Drone Debate’, featuring US Senator John Thune:


Here’s a mind-blowing, well-done animated short that really captures our collective angst that if the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then domestic drones are a superhighway to an Orwellian panoptic gulag.


For national security purposes, Americans are already subject to warrantless wiretaps of calls and emails, the warrantless GPS “tagging” of their vehicles, the domestic use of Predators or other spy-in-the-sky drones, and the Department of Homeland Security’s monitoring of all our behavior through “data fusion centers.” 


America’s promise has always been the power of the many to rule, instead of the one. Ungoverned drone usage, particularly domestically, gives power to the one. 


Drones used for passive surveillance and monitoring should have due process oversight, agreed. But what about targeted lethal drone strikes inside the US? Mr Obama on his sole authority can order armed domestic drone targeting on perceived combatants, according to Atty General Holder's "clarification" letter 3-7-13 after the filibuster by Sen Rand Paul ("combatant" determined by whom is not known since there is no judicial oversight or due process in the drone program). A few hours later the WH further added (via Mr Carney) that lethal drone targeting could be in response to an "imminent threat" (terms undefined in both announcements). Targets could conceivably include peaceful dissenters since, without warrant, trial or any due process, the president doesn't have to justify his targeting decisions.

Sen Paul should follow through with his best remark in his 13-hr filibuster when he said, "We don't ask the president what the drone rules are. We tell the president what the drone rules are." This should include surveillance/monitoring drone rules domestically and overseas as well as lethal targeted drone rules overseas and here at home.

Unfortunately Sen Paul folded a bit too soon.


I don't know anyone who is suffering from a lack of drone privacy in the US. I do however see millions of people suffering from a lack of good jobs and a country falling further behind the rest of the world in these types of technological advancements. The sad part is this type of fear mongering propoganda also greatly damages an enormous nacent market for many non law enforcement uses that are of great benefit to society. These include:
Traffic accident management
Search and rescue
Hazardous crisis management
Environmental management
Wildlife conservation
Infrastructure inspections

This is by no means an all inclusive list. I am grateful this mentality wasn't around when the automobile was being developed. You can take just about any of you sensationalist articles and replace the work "drone" with "automobile" and you will get my point.

Stay Informed