• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • Youtube
Helicopter Flight Training Sponsors

Today’s Law Enforcement Helicopter Trends

Posted 3 years 219 days ago ago by Admin

Once upon a time, the world of law enforcement (LE) helicopters was a relatively simple place. LE pilots flew surveillance and pursuit missions in aid of their respective police departments, using basic helicopters that were aerial observation platforms and little else.

Times have changed: Today’s LE helicopters and LE pilots are affected by trends such as a move to multiple-role missions, advanced cockpit technology, and unmanned aerial systems (aka drones); among others.

Multi-Role Missions

Tight government budgets mean that “more and more law enforcement agencies are being treated as shared or regional assets,” says Amy Romano, MD Helicopters’ director of marketing and communications. “Often, LE agencies are tasked to work with other public safety and even national/defense agencies to provide search and rescue, surveillance, medical transport, firefighting, disaster relief support and more.”

CWO Shane Engelauf knows what Romano is talking about. Engelauf is chief pilot with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office (CCSO) Air Support Unit in Punta Gorda, Florida. Thanks to resource sharing among the agencies within his jurisdiction, Engelauf’s missions have expanded beyond police work to encompass firefighting, rescue, air ambulance, and even mosquito spraying on behalf of Charlotte County. 

“I really think there's a trend towards multi-mission platforms,” says Engelauf. “Due to the scarcity of budgets, the days of police helicopters only flying left-hand orbits and being the eye in the sky are over. If your government can afford to put a helicopter in the air, it has to be able to do law enforcement, firefighting, rescue, and anything else you need.”

“The demand for multi-role helicopters is growing,” agreed a spokesperson for Leonardo Helicopters. “Law enforcement customers want helicopters capable of more operations, which can allow the overall size of their fleet to be smaller and therefore more economical.” As proof, the spokesperson cited Travis County in Texas, whose government is using Leonardo AW169s for patient transport, search and rescue, law enforcement and firefighting missions.

More Capable Helicopters

Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, sees the need to fulfill multi-role missions motivating LE agencies around the world to purchase larger, more powerful helicopters, such as the company’s S-76, S-92 and Black Hawk aircraft.

This trend makes sense: “While the majority of law enforcement helicopters are single-engine aircraft, there is a growing realization that substantially larger, twin-engine assets can help expand the mission,” says Jeanette Eaton, Sikorsky’s regional vice president for the U.S. and Canada. “This trend toward larger helicopters doesn’t necessarily replace the lighter ones, but rather supplements with a new capability. Increasingly we now see growing demand for helicopters that can perform search and rescue, high-rise rescue, tactical team insertion, external load missions, firefighting, and executive transport. Additionally, there is demand for aircraft with the latest technology to enable automated search patterns and instrument flight rules.”

Airbus Helicopters’ Senior Operational Manager and Airborne Law Enforcement Mission Specialist Stephane Rousseau sees the trend toward more capable helicopters being driven by versatility, connectivity, and digitalization.

“Today’s police units are looking for a real multi-purpose helicopter capable of transporting a SWAT team to the scene of a terrorist crisis, carrying out a medical evacuation, flying three hours to secure an international summit, and following a drug convoy at night at 200 km/h on a highway,” says Rousseau. At the same time, the two-way transmissions associated with ground-connected electro-optical systems (EOS), GPS, satellite data, and moving maps are adding to complexity in the cockpit. “This is why today’s police units want a mission management system that is natively integrated into the aircraft, that centralizes all of the sensors, and which makes it possible to retransmit and receive all the information necessary for the mission; whatever the format,” he said.

Meanwhile, digitalization refers to the trend for modern helicopters to be paperless environments. “Nowadays, a tablet has superseded the traditional flight bag for good,” says Rousseau. “These applications save time in maintenance operations, increase efficiency in planning and carrying out flights, and finally also improve flight safety.”

Avionics Advances

Law enforcement agencies certainly want their helicopters to be more capable than ever. “On the avionics side, LEOs (law enforcement officers) are looking for features that provide much higher situational awareness than what is currently available; particularly in situations with a degraded visual environment,” says Romano. “Use of color coding in synthetic vision views, for example, to identify obstacles, terrain and traffic are common requests. We also see requests for improved health monitoring instruments that would help pilots recognize potential issues much more quickly.”

Enhanced pilot and aircraft safety are also driving advances such as fully integrated avionic systems. “A true fully integrated avionic system goes beyond flight instruments under glass to include the engine and all systems integrated with it, as a way of enhancing safety margins,” says Terry Miyauchi, Bell’s para-public customer solutions manager. These advances include functions such as primary situational indicators (PSI) being part of the primary flight display (PFD), rather than separate systems.

“These types of trends collectively lead to critical information all in one place, resulting in less cockpit clutter, streamlined warning systems and a greater situational awareness safety margin,” Miyauchi explains. “So-called ‘glass cockpits’ that simply put electronic flight instruments only under glass can be counter-intuitive by leading to greater head-down time.  The true fully integrated avionics glass cockpit contributes to greater safety margins by additionally creating increased head-up time.” 

Deputy Juan Reyes is a pilot with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office’s Air Support Unit. 
His department flies two MD500Es and a new MD530F equipped with a FLIR Star Safire 380-HD camera, and has recently purchased a second FLIR unit to replace older FLIR 8000s.

“We used to only use the 8000s in the cockpit at night,” says Reyes. “The 380-HD has such superior picture quality and zoom features that we leave it on day and night. Adding to the improved resolution is the ability to overlay digital mapping on top of the 380-HD’s video image. We now know where we are at all times.”

Drones Fit In

Drones are playing an increasingly important role in LE aerial surveillance. But they are doing so as a supplement to helicopters, rather than as replacements.

One reason is cost: “There are about 18,000 LE agencies in the United States, but only about 350 have the budget to support crewed aircraft,” said Daniel Schwarzbach, executive director/CEO of the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA). “A lot of units that need eyes in the sky and couldn’t afford helicopters have adopted drones and done so quite successfully.”

Another reason is the drone’s ability to fly low and slow; allowing it to inspect areas that are just too confined and close to the ground for helicopters to approach safely.

“As advantageous as the manned police platform is, there are several gaps in ability due to numerous constraints from geographic positioning to fleet bandwidth,” says Miyauchi. “Drones have done an incredible job of helping to close those gaps. At the same time, they have served to strengthen the justification for police to have actual eyes in the sky. As drone programs continue to expand and help close gaps, a growing multitude of agencies have realized that the proper home for police drone programs is advantageously placed within police aviation units.”

One unexpected result: “Since some of the smaller departments in Fresno County have gone to drones, they’re not calling us as often for assists,” says Reyes. “That’s not a problem for us, since our unit has enough work to keep our helicopters busy, but we have noticed the drop in requests.”

Drones would certainly help in Imperial County, California, where the Narcotics Task Force Air Support Unit Robinson R44 police helicopter has been grounded awaiting scheduled maintenance. “It’s been about 18 months that we’ve been unable to fly,” says Chief Pilot Donald Wharton. “The R44 is due for about $250,000 in service work, and our budget just doesn’t have that money right now.” Imperial County is now trying to find funding sources to get the R44 into the shop. “If something happens that enhances the mandate for aerial drug interdiction or border security, that could help us get back in the air,” says Wharton. 

COVID-19 Impact

The Coronavirus pandemic isn’t a trend, but it certainly has been affecting LE aviation. Not only have pilots and support crews been sidelined by the virus, but the social distancing that has locked down the world has affected APSA’s ability to provide training.

“We put on 20-plus training events in North America each year, and so far we’ve had to cancel the last four,” says Schwarzbach. “It isn’t clear when we’ll be able to get back on track.”

Only time will tell how COVID-19 will affect LE aviation over the long term. Even after the pandemic has subsided, governments who pay for air support units will be scrambling to cover tax revenue shortfalls caused by business closures and layoffs during this event. Whether this leads to more drone deployments and future budgets cuts  remains to be seen.