Grand Forks Drone Assisted Policing


North Dakota's endless cornfields have provided the perfect means of escape for fleeing suspects in police chases. Police in North Dakota sought help using unmanned aerial vehicles, UAV's commonly known as pilotless drones. The Grand Forks County Sherriff's Office received FAA approval to test drones for police assistance in late 2013 and shortly thereafter made their first daytime arrest with the aid of a drone. In Septgember of 2014, police officers conducted the first nighttime drone assisted arrent of American civilians.  The establishment of University of North Dakota's UVA flight program in 2009 launched Grand Forks as a center for UAV research and testing. These event have placed Grand Forks County in the vanguard of drone assisted policing.

What are the goals? 

The Grand Forks County Sherriff's Department hopes to use drones to aid police in surveillance. Police have effectively used thermal camera-equipped drones to search for escaping suspects in large farms under the cover of darkness. Officials in Grand Forks plan to continue to use the drones to hunt for wanted criminals, gain visuals of dangerous areas, conduct crime scene investigation, and search for missing people.  

Who are the partners? 

Grand Forks became the second police agency to receive FAA approval to conduct nighttime drone surveillance missions. Initially, the local police were using drones lent to them by the Department of Homeland Security, which has been conducting its own drone program along the U.S. border with Mexico. The police department formed an additional partnership with the University of North Dakota UND). 

How is the project financed? 

Many of the drones being used are relatively inexpensive. UND supplies the drones for the sheriff's department under a $1 a year lease as part of their research partnership. After August 1, 2015 UND will conclude its research program, and will transfer the lease directly to the drone manufacturer (AeroVironment). Between training and other related expenses, the program is costing the department $10,000 a year. 


Among the continuing questions about using drones in police work is whether or not law enforcement will need to obtain warrants to use drones. At present, the Grand Forks Sherriff's Department has conducted its missions under the shelter of criminal pursuit and has felt justified in not seeking warrants prior to flight. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Florida v. Riley (1989) that evidence gathered by the naked eye of an officer from an aircraft is admissible in court. This case may provide the precedence for future legal battles over similar programs. 

City Solutions and Applied Research

Last updated July 2015