Atlantic Cities

Drones on the Force

Drones on the Force
Vanguard Defense Industries

They’re more Afghanistan than Mayberry, but that disconnect hasn’t stopped local law enforcement agencies around the country from augmenting their forces with unmanned aerial vehicles.

Lighter and cheaper than a helicopter and equipped with high tech features, these vehicles are increasingly on the want list of law enforcement officials. Though none of these drones are yet in active duty, police and sheriff’s departments – more than 300 according to the Federal Aviation Administration – are adding them to their cache of public safety tools.

Using grant money from the Department of Homeland Security, officials in Montgomery County, Texas, recently purchased a $300,000 remotely piloted helicopter known as a ShadowHawk. With built-in video and still cameras and infrared and nightvision sensors, the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is anticipated to greatly improve the sheriff’s department’s ability to fight crime and ensure public safety. "It's so simple in its design and the objectives, you just wonder why anyone would choose not to have it," Montgomery County Chief Deputy Randy McDaniel recently told KPRC.

Residents in the cities that have been testing these UAVs have voiced concerns about invasion of privacy and the worry that a robot could be flying over their heads at any moment, watching them. Montgomery County officials counter that UAV’s would only be used in specific instances.

It’ll also likely be months or even years before that UAV is put into regular use, according to Lynn Lunsford in the FAA’s Southwest Region public affairs office. The FAA regulates all air traffic in the U.S. and determines which law enforcement agencies are allowed to use these new devices. Through a permitting process, departments can obtain a Certificate of Authorization to train with UAVs—at first on the outskirts of cities in unpopulated areas, but eventually above the city streets. More than 300 of these certificates have been issued to law enforcement agencies, according to Lunsford.

“It’s becoming more common,” Lunsford says. “It’s fair to say that as the UAVs that are being manufactured become easier to operate and more capable, there’s going to be greater interest.”

The Miami-Dade Police Department has been training with two UAVs since 2009, and is likely the closest to being able to use them in regular operations. Not far behind is the police department in Arlington, Texas, which has been training since January in a secured area outside of town and is hoping to put the vehicles into “mission specific” operation in early 2012, according to Tiara Ellis Richard in the Arlington Police Office of Communication.

At the most recent city council meeting, officials approved the use of about $202,000 in Department of Homeland Security grant money to buy two small UAVs, which Richard says will edge the city closer to using the vehicles in real-life applications.

She says the UAVs will be used only in specific cases, like if someone is lost in the woods or when hazardous materials make accessing a scene difficult. “You don’t want to send a human into those situations, or even an animal,” she says.

Another use would be to take remote photos of crime scenes. Richard recalls a highway pileup earlier this year involving more than 50 vehicles. Before the road could be cleared, the whole thing had to be documented.

“Getting the dozens of cars photographed took hours,” Richard says. Calling out the UAV and its camera to fly overhead would have dramatically reduced the amount of time to document the accident and clear the road. “It can preserve a crime scene in a way we couldn’t do before.”

For law enforcement, the allure of these vehicles is strong. As this report from WFLD in Chicago notes, the cost of operating two police helicopters is about $1.4 million a year. With UAVs running in the low hundreds of thousands, the economics are definitely a selling point. And as cities and their police departments try to do more with less, remote controlled drones are likely to be a more popular option.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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