Drone Surveillance and Private Investigators

When it comes to Drones and Drone Surveillance, Private Investigators should be asking many questions. Here are just a few:

  • Is buying a Drone as a Private Investigator worth it?
    • Quality Drones, along with quality cameras, are not cheap. If you are going to make the investment, then you had better be sure you are going to use the equipment and be willing to learn how to use the technology.
  • Should I use a Drone for surveillance?
    • That is for each PI to answer for themselves. For me, the answer is no for two simple reasons–they are too loud and it takes too long to gather the Drone when my target departs the area in a vehicle.
  • What are the laws?
    • Each State, County, City and Town will have their own governing laws concerning the use of Drones. It’s important to research them out before “flying.”
  • What are the limitations for Drones?
    • The article below will offer some limitations, but battery power, ability to fly and speed of practical use for Private Investigators should be an initial concern.
  • Are there business advantages?
    • To say your company has “Drone Surveillance” sounds cool and may draw in potential customers, even if it’s not for Drone use. You can expand your business services if you know the potential uses.
  • How will Drones be perceived by the public?
    • So far, I would say “not well.” For fun, sure! I think everyone may be on board for that. For surveillance? Not so much. Have you seen the YouTube videos of angry people shooting down Drones? It may be illegal for them to do, but you are still out the Drone my friend!

When Drones first came out, almost every Colorado Private Investigator I knew wanted one. C’mon, who doesn’t want to fly a drone at least once? For a P.I., this Drone Technology could be a very real business advantage.

But, like with any new technology, you need to be asking yourself a ton of questions and then seeking out those answers. It would be an understatement to say that the use of Drones is an extremely “hot button” topic among Private Investigators. And of course, the public outrage over Invasion of Privacy issues should have been expected (I don’t think anyone was ready for the amount of Drone backlash that circulated).

Now, as I write this Blog Post in 2018, most Private Investigators I know do not use Drones and for one simple reason: THEY ARE LOUD! Oh my goodness, are they loud. There is no getting around that fact. Covert and Drones do not typically play well together. I know a few PI’s that own a Drone, but it just sits in storage just begging to be used, sold or wrecked.

Oh sure, there are hundreds of circumstances where being silent may not matter, but for the most part, P.I.’s are in quiet, residential areas while conducting surveillance. Before I get too far into this, let’s take a look at some important factors when it comes to Drones and Private Investigators (and everyone else for that matter).

Drone Surveillance and Privacy Issues

Without question, this debate will NEVER end. Why? Simply put, no one can agree. Sometimes, legal questions can be answered quickly and effectively, but that isn’t the major problem here–I believe it’s the morality of using drones as an investigative tool. That’s right! Legal issues are much easier to solve than moral issues when it comes to the Drone invasion. I personally do not have a problem with an Investigator using a Drone for surveillance–as long as they don’t violate any legal or ethical code.

Let’s be honest, most people think they know privacy laws, but they really don’t. I believe it’s about self-protection and not necessarily about privacy. Here’s an example:

If I were to come up to your car and take a picture of your license plate, you would likely freak out. I mean, when you posted your car for sale on the web, you used your thumb to block out your plate number, right? But, do you block your license plate number out when your car sits in the driveway? How about when you drive around, do you have your plate covered up with a towel? Of course not, that would be illegal. In every state, that I know of, your vehicle’s license plate must attached, in view and without hindrances.

Everyday you drive your car around with your license plate in full view of the world to see, but the second I take a picture of it, you somehow feel I violated your privacy. Am I right?

Alright, for your convenience, here are some additional informational links for Laws and Drones:




Remember, every State has their own legal limitations surrounding drone use and in my experience, local authorities do not always know the laws when it comes to flying Drones–especially for P.I.’s!

I remember watching an episode of Shark Tank and during that particular show, Daymond John stated that over 60% of Drones were returned due to crashing (Link to Watch Episode). Well, crashing your new (and expensive) Drone is a huge issue for any Private Investigator! You certainly don’t want to crash a Drone at anytime, let alone during surveillance! My guess is, you’ll have to put in a lot of hours practicing in various areas in order to perfect your flying skills!

Just a quick thought–You’re flying a Drone and your suspect leaves. Now you have to get the Drone back to your position, grab it, pack it away and hurry up to do mobile surveillance! Truth is, you probably lost that person already. Here is the point:

  • Mobile Surveillance is hard enough and all-t00-often, we lose people quickly. Now, add in Drones and you’ll be losing track of your target even more.

A Private Investigator can use Drones in several ways:

  • Pre-Surveillance
    • Before you start surveillance, you survey the area for potential surveillance positions, points of egress, and major areas.
  • Surveillance
    • Using the Drone to view the area in real-time, especially in rural areas.
  • Scene reconstruction
    • I think this is pretty obvious, but as much as well all love Google Maps, they are not always accurate and up-to-date.
  • Access areas that are difficult
    • Remote areas, mountainous terrain, over the water and high points out of normal view. To me, this is the most appealing at times. I’ve been in situations, especially in Colorado, where trees and the Foothills make it difficult to view what is necessary.
  • Survey the land
    • Especially for reconstruction purposes.
  • Covering more area
    • While the PI sits in the front of the house, the Drone can be covering the alley or rear of the house. Remember, the Drone doesn’t always have to be flying. If it’s possible to legally “perch,” then by all means, do that.

Drone Limitations:

  • Battery life
    • 20-45 minutes (Likely 20 minutes average)
  • Loudness
    • Uh, very!
  • Difficult to use
    • At first, absolutely! As stated earlier, in 2016, 60% were returned due to crashes. If you truly want to use Drones safely and effectively, you will have to put in several hours of practice. Not only to learn to fly the thing, but to practice in scenario based situations. Flying in an open field is a lot easier than flying in a residential area. Flying by sight is a lot easier than flying using your phone as a monitor.
  • Privacy issues
    • This isn’t as hard as one might think. One of my favorite things to learn as a Police Officer was Search and Seizure laws (4th Amendment). The “Right to Privacy” may seem fluid, but it’s really not.
  • Moral issues
    • Each Private Investigator must answer that for themselves. For me, as long as it doesn’t violate the privacy laws, then it’s okay (for the most part).
  • Cost
    • As stated, high quality Drones and high quality cameras are not cheap. Factoring in your time to learn how to fly the tool, it’s not cheap by any means. My Sony 4K Video Camera was not cheap, but I’m not in any danger of crashing it either…although it has slid off my seat a few times, but we won’t talk about that.

The truth is, the drone debate isn’t going anywhere and most likely, the laws will continue to change; some good and some bad.

Drones can certainly be convenient, but they are far from glamorous. Surveillance Drones will NOT be replacing Private Investigators anytime soon. The idea that P.I.’s will be utilizing Drones is a valid one, but to use Drones as much as we thought we would is absolutely not the case. You’re money shot will have to continue to evolve!

As Drone technology advances, it allows for instant, real-time video viewing with a WiFi connection through your Phone, Tablet and IPad. Because the applications for surveillance and investigations are nearly unlimited, the potential for abuse will always exist.

Imagine This:

You are at home watching television, or sitting on your couch with your partner, when out of nowhere, you hear a buzzing sound. Immediately, you look outside and you see a drone hovering by your window with a camera attached to it. Your heart starts to elevate and about a million questions pop into your mind. (Yes, seeing a Drone above you or staring at you will mostly likely increase your blood pressure!)

“Are kids playing in the area?” “Is someone pulling a prank?” “Is someone spying on you?” WHAT. IS. GOING. ON!

Listen, the first thing you should do, is call your local Police Department or Sheriff’s Office. Flying a Drone by your house isn’t necessarily illegal, but using a Drone to “peep” through your home window certainly is! Um, remember the term, “Peeping Tom?” I can’t low crawl into your bushes and place my face against your window in an attempt to see what you are doing. CREEPY!

Is this an invasion of privacy? The answer, of course, is YES! As a Colorado Private Investigator, I am well versed in the laws surrounding my field. I know that I am not allowed to film through a residential window while conducting surveillance. Yes, you can argue that an open window means open to the public, and in many ways, you would be correct. Regardless, I cannot, and will not, obtain video of a person while they are inside their homes without permission. Golden Rule Anyone? “…do unto others as you would have them do unto you….” (Matthew 7:12)

If the Police cannot search your home without a warrant, why should I be allowed to “peek” inside your home with a Drone?

Think of it another way…A Private Detective would not be permitted to put a ladder up against your home and look inside your window! If that is correct, and it is, then I cannot use a Drone.

What if you are at the park? What if you are in a parking lot talking to a “friend?” Does the same privacy apply? Absolutely not! You have NO expectation of privacy, law or otherwise, if you are out in the public’s view.

Again, think of it this way…If it’s a public space or public activity, you have no right to privacy and all is fair in the PI world of surveillance. I have personal rules that I abide by, but those are my own rules, not the law. For example, I will not spy on someone while they are in church, unless they are a church worker.

If you are in the public’s view, you can try and argue all day long that your privacy was violated and in the end, you would lose that argument (and rightfully so).

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