surveillance and drones

Surveillance and drones

Surveillance and drones

There are many ways images from drones can be used for surveillance and investigations.

I can only imagine the look on somebodies face who accused me of spying if I said, “That’s exactly what I’m doing”.

Technology is changing

Technology is always changing the way we do things. One of the least talked about ways things have changed is the way we lie, cheat and steal.

Recently I was a part of an investigation where a young man’s job was to take care of a high profile person’s Instagram account. They had found something in their client’s inbox which certainly shouldn’t have been there and he subsequently tried blackmailing that person – for bitcoin. Now go and tell that to someone in 2006.

Private investigation firms have either had to evolve with the technology, or get left behind in that regard. These days you’ll see reports, logs and other evidence which can and does end up in courtrooms with details about activities on Facebook, Instagram and even Tinder.

Drones for private investigators

Then digital cameras came along. Then someone thought…lets make it fly.

In case you were wondering, private investigators have no special powers. They’re simply good at systematically using what is available to them legally, such as the latest in camera equipment, or open source searches. One major concern that people have when it comes to drones or any new technology, is privacy.

A disproportionate amount of people believe that they are being watched or spied on. This is paranoia of course. The overwhelming majority of people who use the technology are just recreational users having a little fun.


As creepy as this sounds, private investigators have been conducting surveillance for a long time. We used go to work with nothing but a notepad and a set of binoculars. Primitive cameras with tapes started to emerge. Then digital cameras came along. Then someone thought…lets make it fly.

I often bring up drones to my peers and colleagues who might ask me something like “Won’t the person hear the drone?” This is likely under the assumption that I’m flying a few meters over a subject’s head as they go about their day. This is not what I do at all.

Listed below are my top 10 use cases for drones as a private investigator.

Scene inspections

Among factual investigators a large part of the job is taking a camera and photographing a scene of what might be anything from a motor vehicle accident to a burned down house. Now with the help of improved technology these images can be taken in much greater detail, from places that were not possible previously.


It has to be said, not everyone accused of lying, cheating or stealing is a nice or pleasant person to be around. They don’t always live in the sort of area you’d take your family for a holiday either. That being said, putting a drone in the air can be a great way of keeping my body out of the street, and gaining intel without the unnecessary confrontation. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding out if there’s a vehicle of interest nearby before landing immediately and taking up a safe position.


There’s only so far you can stand away from something and take a photograph. Australia is a big place and cameras still do have their limitations. However having a camera that can literally fly takes out a lot of those road blocks. I’ve seen stolen property in such large quantity it would never be possible to get a single photo of all of it until I could put a drone in the air.


Anyone whose ever flown in a plane, stood on top of a hill or been in a high-rise building knows there a things you can see and appreciate from up high that you can’t from ground level. With drones we get a more complete picture of what’s going on than ever before. Using scene inspections of a motor vehicle accident as an example, we can truly capture the roads involved, the paths the vehicles took and therefore have a far better and more complete understanding of the situation.

Going where you could not

It turns out that the information you need is across a crocodile infested river, up a steep cliff and standing on top of that cliff is that guy you’ve been avoiding, and he wants to have a long, long chat. Well now you can bypass all of that, and send a machine to gather the information instead.

Confirming intel

Confirming intel and gathering evidence may be two different things, and just confirming something may not even involve taking a picture, film or even making a note. If instructions make a statement, it’s a good idea to confirm all of it if only for your own peace of mind, and if its impractical to do that by road or by foot, sending a drone is a great alternative.


 You never know what’s going to happen, especially in surveillance, much less where you are going to end up, which in Australia is a scary thought. When you’re talking about going off the beaten path, particularly on foot, a drone can be a tool to re-orientate yourself by simply sending it straight up and finding a landmark to aim at. It sure beats having to climb a mountain to get that view when you’re already tired, lost and dehydrated.

Search and rescue

Most people are not aware of the scope of things a private investigator may be asked to do. A lot of people think it’s all about infidelity or fake personal injury claims but the industry is much bigger than that, and private investigators do get hired to locate people on occasion. People go missing for various reasons and the reason a drone might come into play may vary, but search and rescue people are using drones all over the world with great success.


Drones have powerful GPS capabilities, you do not have to guess your height or distance away from yourself to ensure that you are within any legal limits. That being said they can also be used to measure approximate heights and distances, particularly useful in scene inspections or just to gain an understanding of the size of an area or point of interest.

It’s a camera!

Even with a pretty average priced drone the quality is so good that people are also simply holding the drone in their hands and using them to film things like weddings. You don’t have to have to be flying for that to work. Keep in mind there’s also excellent camera stabilization due to the gimbal attached to stop it vibrating whilst airborne. This gives a professional look to videos and keeps photos from becoming blurred and unusable.

The Rules

I often get asked when doing any kind of surveillance using a drone: “is that legal?”

In Australia, as well as many other countries, there are two things to consider. One being the laws of the land, the other being the laws of the sky.
Before drones the two things didn’t often intersect. A helicopter pilot usually didn’t have think much about someone’s privacy as they fly over and around a populous area. A person usually didn’t have to consider whether or not their photography session is going to interfere with the flight path of a helicopter. Until now.

A private investigator has no special powers or privileges over either air nor land law.

It is however very possible that when both air and land laws are respected, flying a drone for the purpose of a surveillance investigation is perfectly legal.

Below are my top tips on how to fly a drone legally as a private investigator.

Have the appropriate licence/s and qualifications

This may be obvious to some but most of the time you need a private investigator licence to conduct private investigations for a reward – and in a lot of cases you need a separate formal qualification or licence to allow you to fly drones commercially. In Australia, that’s known as a Remote Pilot’s Licence or RePl (as a minimum). There is also a category in Australia called the Sub 2 kilo excluded category, which allows you to fly a drone weighing less than 2 kilograms for commercial purposes. Keeping in mind, none of these allow you to operate outside of the law, and this is particularly important for the purpose of evidence gathering. Breaking the law while obtaining evidence can render your evidence useless and get you into a lot of trouble.

Know your Air Law

Unless otherwise licenced  and/or given permission by the relevant authorities, each country has it’s own set of Standard Operating Conditions which you must follow. A lot of them are fairly similar. Rules such as altitude limits, keeping away from people and property and restrictions on flying at night are pretty uniformed throughout the world. You must know and follow these rules, especially in a commercial operation.

Know your Land Law

Similarly you need to make sure the actions you take on the ground are done legally. I’ll say this again, private investigators have no special powers. Private investigators are not allowed to trespass, ignore traffic laws or park illegally. Violating a law during the process of obtaining evidence can render evidence inadmissible and land you in some hot water. Keep in mind, although Air Law is usually fairly uniform, land laws can differ when crossing State lines.

Know your relevant legislation

 In the sunny state of Queensland, Australia where I reside on the Gold Coast, some examples of the legislation I must know and adhere to are the Security Providers’ Act and The Privacy Act 1988. Again these will vary depending on the state or country you live in.

Follow your countries Standard Operating Conditions

The Standard Operating Conditions for Australia are laid out by The Civil Aviation and Safety Authority or CASA. They are the governing body in Australia that create and enforce the rules. As stated earlier, most countries agree on a lot of the rules but they can differ slightly. It’s also important to mention that some countries do not permit the use of drones at all. 

PERSONALLY drones have not been the strangest or biggest change in technology since I started surveillance in Brisbane in 2006. Even before drones started to become popular it was possible to use Google Earth to get a birds-eye view of anywhere worth looking at on the planet. Through social media such as Instagram or Facebook I can find out how you take ycour offee. Through Tinder I can find out if you’re pretending to be single or not. Drones are a tool, as much as any other piece of equipment I take to a job. That’s not to under value their capabilities. Drones have proven useful in all kinds of industries and besides that, many people including myself have found them to be an enjoyable hobby.

So are they creepy? Or invasive? In my opinion, no more creepy than any recent change in technology. Ironically a lot of people complaining about privacy are doing so from their Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts where they share everything in real time.

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