Government budget cuts trigger innovations

 - September 21, 2010, 9:30 AM

The days of turbine helicopters as preferred police aviation tools might be coming to an end. Record state and municipal deficits have made police helicopters easy political targets for budget slashing and are forcing law-enforcement agencies that want to retain aviation units into more cost-effective innovations that include remotely piloted systems and flying light sport aircraft.

Nationwide, at least 10 different law-enforcement organizations have eliminated their fleets, while others have reduced fleet size, cut back hours or limited training and maintenance, according to Keith Johnson, safety program manager for the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). Johnson thinks the current fiscal climate will exacerbate the trend and “will lower the bar in terms of what people are willing to pay for law enforcement aviation–and it may never recover.” 

Disbanded units include Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Bernardino, Calif. Units throughout Southern California and in Phoenix have cut flight hours by 30 to 50 percent. Other units in Newark, N.J., and Baltimore are under serious review. The Arizona Department of Public Safety could close three of its aviation bases and sell four aircraft, while the Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) might ground one of its AS350s.

The UHP is already using a small, remotely piloted unit from Ogden, Utah-based Leptron Industrial Helicopters to photograph accident scenes. The Leptron helicopters are working for law-enforcement agencies in at least four states, where they are being used for tasks ranging from surveillance to arson investigation and marijuana spotting, according to company president John Oakley.

Pilot-less Helicopters
Oakley said the time is right for his small helicopters, which run on either gas or battery electric power, carry diverse camera and sensor packages, and come in a variety of sizes, from two to 35 pounds. For now, units flown by first responders must be controlled via line-of-sight and are limited to altitudes of 400 feet agl; however, Leptron claims some of its helicopters can cruise at altitudes up to 12,000 feet agl and have a control radius of up to 21 miles. The helicopters can land and shut down the engine but maintain power to cameras and sensors for up to five hours, making them ideal surveillance tools. They can fly in 45-mph wind and have flown in snow, rain and sleet.

Oakley acknowledges that the units may cause some safety concerns, but said that his fleet has an excellent record. “These things have to have a perfect record. We have some units with 400 to 500 flights with no downtime and no accidents and no incidents,” he said.

Several agencies have obtained Department of Homeland Security grants to fund their Leptrons, which currently cost between $17,000 and $72,000 each. 
Johnson said it is inevitable that municipal law enforcement will turn to technology like Leptron’s. “It is a foregone conclusion that it is going to happen. It is here and it is going to grow.”

Support from Light Sport Aircraft
Johnson also said that between 30 and 40 state and municipal policing agencies have turned to light sport aircraft, despite their time-of-day and payload limitations, to start, maintain or supplement aviation units. The federal Department of Justice is funding research into the use of light sport aircraft for law-enforcement applications. Johnson said the use of light sport aircraft, especially in rural markets “that can’t contract with anybody” for regional assistance programs, “will only continue to grow.”