We know by now that there is a good chance someone is out there spray painting his drone black and taping over the lights so that he can get away with flying his drone into a prison yard to delivery contraband. But drones are also being used to spy on people, interrupt the work of emergency services, harass wild animals, and menace other aircraft. Because crime and nuisance with drones seems to be a growing trend, law enforcement has been forced to launch new forensic intelligence forces to deal solely with drone-related crimes. But how can a criminal drone pilot be identified, when, for example, only a drone is found at the scene of a crime? Or when only fragments from a drone are found? Or when only a controller or mobile phone is found? Or when a likely pilot is suspected but no drone is in sight? Well, that’s why law enforcement is turning to forensic teams.

Tying the digital and physical facets of a drone flight to a human pilot is not easy; that’s why drone forensics are becoming increasingly important as more drones hit the skies. Not only does law enforcement hope to protect the public from nuisance and petty crimes (and stop the infiltration of contraband into prisons through drones), but they hope to learn how to detect and stop weaponized drones, which are also becoming more of a concern. The need for drone-specific law enforcement also extends to civilian safety. And of course, the potential for invasion of privacy by a drone has led (and will likely continue to lead to) people shooting drone down which poses risks to the public if more firearms are used in this way. The key for law enforcement will be cracking the drone’s complex digital ecosystem. The ‘ecosystem’ includes peripheral devices like mobile phones, controllers and sensors that collect data like GPS position and crash analysis data from accelerometers, compass heading, and video images. And, of course, all of the metadata collected in the video could likely reveal where the images were taken, including the drone’s altitude. So, forensics, really seems to be the key, with the caveat that due to the diverse marketplace of drones, there may be some ‘digital quirks’ that put a kink in the forensic investigation.

What type of ‘quirks’ are at issue? Each drone could store flight data differently, store the latitude and longitude for different periods of time, store data in a mobile app or directly on the drone itself, plus drones use different operating systems, so law enforcement drone analysts need to be well-versed in each.

Not only can law enforcement use digital forensics in drone investigations, but they are finding that they can also look to physical evidence—a drone’s rotors are often sharp edged and retain trace skin cells, so sometimes law enforcement could retrieve DNA. Same goes for drones with SD video storage cards and batteries—law enforcement can look for fingerprints on these hidden parts of the drone.

While all of this seems promising that doesn’t mean that criminal drone operators aren’t aware of these tactics, which only means that law enforcement has quite the task ahead of them as drones and their technology get more sophisticated and more widely used.