The grainy black-and-white video is reminiscent of the famous images of U.S. “surgical strikes” during the first Gulf War, but without the crosshairs. It’s an infrared image, overlaid with white numbers representing the aircraft’s shifting position and remaining battery life.
A white blob ambles across a field, something about its movements immediately familiar. Ben Miller points to his computer screen. “There’s a human,” he says. “I can’t tell you who they are; I couldn’t even tell you if they’re a girl or a boy.”
He does this a lot: explaining why his drones would have difficulty, and little reason for, invading anyone’s privacy. There’s more to that issue, but in rural Mesa County, where this technology is mostly used to search for missing people and photograph crime scenes, it seems like background noise.
Miller is the quartermaster—a kind of gear-monger—at the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Grand Junction, Colorado. His duties include buying evidence management software and supplying officers with batteries for their hand-held radios, but he’s also responsible for the department’s unmanned aerial vehicle program. Miller is a born tech geek; he has that combination of intelligence and enthusiasm that drives him to adapt the latest cool tool to his line of work.
One of Miller’s three UAVs recorded these video images on a search-and-rescue mission, and although the aircraft didn’t spot the missing woman (other searchers eventually did), it did cover much more area than the officers on the ground.
But there are obstacles to the use of search-and-rescue drones. Miller picks up a framed cover from a February 2013 issue of Time magazine—a photo-illustration of a military Predator drone buzzing a suburban house. “This is a frustration of mine,” he says. “That’s not even a real photo.”
It’s this kind of representation that spurs citizens of Mesa County to contact the sheriff’s office with all kinds of concerns about its UAV program—from vague discomfort with aerial robots to all-out conspiracy theories. But Miller, along with his UAV team and Sheriff Stan Hilkey, believe that the key to making UAV deployment possible is winning the community’s hearts and minds, so they keep an open door. One couple came in concerned about the giant, ominous drones they thought the sheriff’s office would be flying out of Grand Junction’s airport. When the sheriff held out his arms to demonstrate the size of the aircraft in question, they said, “Oh.” Miller brought a three-foot Draganflyer UAV with him when he testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in March 2013 to deflate similar fears.
Just outside Grand Junction, on a bluff above Interstate 70, Miller pulls a three-foot-long black case out of an SUV. In it are sections of aluminum-alloy pipe, some white panels, a handful of electronics—seven pieces in all. Miller starts snapping them together. A group of government employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, the Colorado Geological Survey, and the Colorado Department of Transportation watch, interested in how unmanned aircraft can help them do more for less.
It takes Miller only a few minutes to assemble the Falcon, a four-foot-long, 9.5-pound, battery-powered, fixed-wing airplane. It carries a high-resolution infrared digital camera, flies autonomously with only a series of GPS waypoints to guide it, and lands by deploying a parachute and drifting nose-first to the ground.