Can Drones Replace Helicopters?

As drones continue to fill the nation’s skies, law enforcement agencies that rely upon helicopters for a variety of missions are debating whether drones might be cheaper and more effective performing in the same roles, and if so, whether they should replace their entire helicopter fleet with unmanned aircraft.

Most police forces, it seems, are just adding one or two drones to their current fleet.  For example, some search and rescue operations do benefit from the advanced sensor imaging capabilities of drones, which can identify criminal suspects or lost and missing persons through thick forest cover or at night.  Drones can also facilitate some pursuit missions in confined spaces, including narrow street alleys, where it’s too dangerous for helicopters to fly.  Drones’ superior maneuverability allows them to swoop around buildings and dive under bridges and low-level obstacles, or through a maze of busy streets to maintain visual identification with fleeing suspects.

On the downside, drones have a stark weakness:  they lack the transport capability of helicopters.  If a SWAT team or police dogs need to be rushed to a crime scene to aid officers on site, drones are of no use.  Drones also have limited battery storage capacity, which generally restricts their continuous flight time to as little as 20 minutes.  For prolonged pursuits helicopters would seem to have a distinct advantage.

In fact, the main advantage of drones isn’t operational at all: it’s simply their reduced cost.   Earlier this year one Ohio sheriff decided to replace his two expensive police helicopters with an expanded fleet of drones after calculating how cheaply the drones could fly without the need for pilots, maintenance or gasoline.  The sheriff estimated the cost of his two helicopters at $3 million annually, or $10,000 per mission, with an additional maintenance bill of $300,000 per craft.  For that same expense, he figured out that he could purchase an entire fleet of 15 drones that could fly more regularly and perform most of the same missions, without the need for repair or regular upkeep.

And there was another unexpected cost-saving:  The decommissioned helicopters had a resale value that exceeded their original cost.  By selling the two helicopters, the sheriff estimated he would add another $1 million to his law enforcement budget.  The extra cash might even be used to purchase at least one piloted EVTOL vehicle that could transport officers to a crime scene – and sustainably, without a chopper’s carbon emissions.

The issue of helicopters versus drones has come up in other operational settings — for example in border patrolling.  Drones have been found to be more useful for short-range close-in surveillance of specific border crossings and for identifying small groups of illegal immigrants or drug and gun smugglers.  But for longer range  border patrol, immigration authorities still prefer helicopters , in part because they can fly at faster speeds and for  longer periods without the need for cumbersome and time-consuming recharging delays.  Constructing large stationary surveillance towers equipped with long-range cameras have also been found useful in place of drones or helicopters.

It may be that the debate is too polarized, in fact.  Some industry pioneers advocate for a hybrid system that integrates helicopters and drones and even EVTOL vehicles into a single mission fleet, especially for search-and rescue (SAR) operations.  For example, a single helicopter may serve as the lead SAR vehicle with a team of drones under its control. The helicopter pilot could direct the drones to search different areas, and after reviewing their data onboard, organize the ensuing rescue or apprehension.  In the final analysis, it’s the operational requirements – based above all, on the public safety need– that should drive the equation, experts say.

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