Video drones are a game changer for private investigators. But it’s new technology. Many investigators wonder about the limitations of this new convenient tool: drone surveillance. In fact, drones have caused quite the ruckus in the private intelligence community.
Investigators are trying to uncover their usefulness against a chorus of public outrage over the invasion of privacy. As the debate comes to a head, here’s what you need to know about using drone surveillance in your PI business.
Legality of Drone Surveillance
The above-mentioned debate bubbled up on the heels of a 2014 ruling that allowed for the commercial use of drones.
Since 2014, some changes at the hands of the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) prohibit drone use under certain conditions.
Generally accepted, small commercial drone operations are legal when limited to daylight hours. And when operator certification standards are met.
However, some states have individual legal limitations surrounding drone use.
Take Texas, for instance. It’s a state whose constituents are very concerned with personal privacy. The state law is written making it illegal for anyone to conduct drone surveillance without permission.
Even casual drone users must destroy videos that capture individuals without consent.
How PIs Use Drones Today
The term surveillance drone is a broad stroke one that sounds more sinister than it actually is. In states where private investigators can conduct drone surveillance, PIs use surveillance in several ways:
For Land Surveys to Compare Against Google Earth
One common way a PI might use a surveillance drone is to conduct a survey of the land.
Tools like Google Earth are helpful for this purpose without using drone surveillance. But when gathering information for a pending court case, PIs must be accurate pros.
Google Earth doesn’t always show the most accurate representation of the land since the pictures are sometimes years old.
PIs can use drones to survey land and compare against Google Earth images as they prepare to provide expert exhibits in court.
For Reenactments and Reconstruction
It can be crucial to the outcome of a case, that PIs recreate an event to determine the way they would have occurred.
Using flying surveillance drones, investigators capture a 360-degree view of the event. Reenactments allow PIs to see the order in which each domino falls toward an outcome.
They’re Safe for Pre-surveillance
Pre-surveillance is a process in which a PI gets a feel for neighborhoods and areas of interest.
For example, a person surveilled may live in a rural town. One where maps don’t accurately show every route available to the subject.
Drones provide a safe way to conduct pre-surveillance. They are an option that allows PIs to avoid putting their own life on the line when dealing with someone potentially dangerous.
To Find a Hidden Object
If the subject of a private investigation is hiding objects, like stolen property, in their backyard or somewhere on their land, drone surveillance can help private investigators locate these items.
To Replace Chartered Aerial Photography at a Lower Cost
An important use of surveillance drones is to replace chartered aerial photography, which can often be a costly expense. This is especially important when looking at the overall cost of litigation. Aerial drones provide a reduction in litigation cost that can be substantial.
Limitations of Using Drone Surveillance
Properly implemented surveillance drones, as described above, are not only ethical for investigators to use, but necessary for private investigators to do their job in the best way they can.
However, there are limitations to using drones. For naysayers worried about privacy, these drawbacks should ease some of the overarching concerns about the intrusion of drone surveillance:
Battery Life is An Issue
These are not military grade drones we are talking about here. These are the kind you see neighbors and friends buzzing around with, in their free time.
As such, even the top market drones only get about 20 minutes of battery life before they are ready to come down from the sky.
This severely limits the reach that drones have for people in the private intelligence community.
When they aren’t getting ready to fall out of the sky with a low battery, drones make a loud buzzing sound that is definitely noticeable.
It’s a common misconception that drones allow private investigators to have eyes practically anywhere.
Surveillance drones are great for many things, but none of those are being quiet and not attracting attention.
Right to Privacy Laws
Legislation has passed allowing for the commercial use of drones in certain situations. But citizens have a legal right to privacy that sometimes supersedes it.
Investigators must respect if they are to operate within the law in many states.
Right to privacy law varies state-by-state.
PIs are responsible for educating themselves about the legalities of using drone surveillance.
The debate around surveillance drones isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and most likely the laws will continue to change.
Some question the ethics of using aerial drones in practice. The complaint is they offer a covert and far-reaching way for investigators to invade a subject’s privacy. But this train of thought falls flat when you consider the reality of how they must be used.
Drone use is far less glamorous for investigators than the fantasy of having a tiny super-spy in the sky.
Drones are convenient tools that allow private investigators to help litigators build a case based on accuracy. But they aren’t practical for truly covert operations because of the reasons mentioned above.
Nonetheless, the community will continue to see a rise in drone use. This makes it important for investigators to know the limitations from state-to-state.
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