Aviation Technology

Planes and helicopters offer law enforcement unique advantages that can save time and resources. They are often essential tools in time-critical situations, such as searching for missing persons or surveying a hostage scene. But aircraft can be extremely expensive. Helicopters, for example, can cost more than $3 million to purchase and thousands of dollars per hour to fuel and maintain.

Larger urban jurisdictions may have the resources to acquire more expensive aviation assets, but the price may be unrealistic for smaller jurisdictions. In 2007, the first national study of police units operating planes or helicopters found that approximately 20 percent of all agencies with 100 or more sworn officers had aviation units, including 44 state police agencies, 76 sheriffs' offices, 68 municipal police agencies and 13 county police agencies. [1]

NIJ's aviation activities focus on research, evaluation and development designed to find safe and affordable options that meet a department's needs. The NIJ aviation portfolio has several goals:

  • Determine whether lower cost, light sport aircraft can cost-effectively enhance the work of law enforcement.
  • Evaluate operational aspects of low-cost light sport aircraft. [2]
  • Identify low-cost aviation camera systems.
  • Develop new aviation technology.
  • Develop and evaluate unmanned aircraft systems.

NIJ-funded staff at the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center's Small, Rural, Tribal, and Border Regional Center Exit Notice have purchased and are evaluating 16 lower cost aircraft.


[note 1] Langton, Lynn, Aviation Units in Large Law Enforcement Agencies, 2007, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2009.

[note 2] According to the Federal Aviation Administration, light-sport aircraft are small, simple, low-performance, low-energy aircraft. They include airplanes, gliders, gyroplanes, balloons, airships, weight-shift-control, and powered parachutes. (Helicopters and powered lifts are excluded because of complexity.) Light-sport aircraft are limited to:

  • 1,320 lb.(600 kg), (1,430 lb. seaplanes) maximum takeoff weight.
  • One or two occupants.
  • Single engine (non-turbine).
  • Maximum stall speed (without lift enhancing devices) of 45 knots.
  • Maximum airspeed in level flight of 120 knots.
  • Fixed landing gear.
  • Fixed pitch propeller.
Date Modified: December 16, 2016