This Falcon belongs to Chris Miser, the airplane’s designer and the owner of the Aurora, Colorado company that makes it. Miser is back from flying the Falcon in South Africa, testing whether it could be used to monitor poaching on wildlife reserves. His company has worked closely with Miller for the past two years, setting up the sheriff’s department’s two Falcon systems and flying missions with them as one of their official pilots.
Miser and Miller conduct a quick pre-flight check, wiggling the Falcon’s aileron servos and testing its front-mounted propeller motor. Miser notices the onboard video camera—which feeds a first-person perspective from the aircraft to his laptop—isn’t working. He decides to fly anyway. “It’s nice to have,” he says, “but you don’t need it.”
The sheriff’s office is lending its UAV capability to the U.S. Geological Survey, which wants to assess a landslide that spilled onto I-70. The USGS needs aerial photos, taken at six-month intervals, to see if the landslide is still moving toward the interstate. It would cost hundreds of dollars per hour to hire a manned aircraft to take the photos, but Miller estimates that this mission will cost the county taxpayers just $20.
Miser loops a 20-foot bungee cord around a scraggly bush and attaches the other end to the fuselage of the Falcon, walking the airplane backward until the bungee is taut. When he lets go, the bungee slingshots the Falcon into the air. An accelerometer cribbed from smart-phone technology tells the Falcon it’s airborne, and the propeller starts spinning automatically. The airplane immediately ascends to the designated 250-foot altitude, reaches its first waypoint over the landslide, and begins to methodically pace back and forth across the sky, taking pictures.
Miser sits in his SUV watching the Falcon’s progress on his laptop. Although he can’t see what the Falcon sees, he follows its progress on a Google Earth satellite image of the area that is covered in dots connected by white lines—the aircraft’s flight plan. A comm box on the dashboard transmits the navigational data to the Falcon, while the onboard avionics provide “stability-augmented control” to keep the aircraft level and steady, even in rough air.
Miller’s eyes are glued to the airplane. This two-person protocol is the safest way to fly UAVs; it ensures the operators never lose “situational awareness.” Without the onboard video link, it’s especially important.
Of the roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, only a few hundred can afford helicopters or another type of manned air support. Even for those agencies that have aircraft, the operating cost is painful—on average, $650 per hour.
The range of potential law enforcement applications for small UAVs is limited in most cases by the kind of drone that police departments can afford—usually something in the Falcon range, about $55,000 for a pair. Such small aircraft can carry only so much weight, so their batteries are small, which limits flight duration (an hour for the Falcon). Miller points out that while these UAVs are well suited for search-and-rescue and aerial photography, they’re not so helpful for, say, surveillance of drug dealers, because the UAV will eventually have to go home to recharge.
Mesa County’s other UAV, the multicopter Draganflyer X6, is an example of the right tool for the job. Though it can stay aloft for only 15 minutes, it’s useful for crime scene photography. The high vantage point allows for identification and analysis of crime scenes, such as when Miller created a composite of aerial photographs showing a grassy median that had been shredded by a joyriding teenager. Photos taken on the ground wouldn’t have shown how extensive the damage was.
Public agencies like the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department are allowed to fly once they’ve acquired a certificate of authorization (COA) from the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA says that as of last January, 545 such certificates were active. Flying at night is not allowed, nor is flying more than 400 feet above the ground, within five miles of an airport, or out of the operators’ line of sight.