Will Drones Be the Next Police Cars?

Law enforcement prepares for its newest rookies.

Mesa County deputy Derek Johnson launches a Falcon. The sheriff’s office uses UAVs mainly for crime scene photography and search-and-rescue. (Mesa County Sheriff's Office )
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Some 36 law enforcement agencies nationwide are operating UAV programs under COAs, which are generally good for two years. Of those agencies, only a handful have flown their drones outside of training. Captain Leonard Montgomery of the North Little Rock Police Department in Arkansas had a run of bad luck with his Rotomotion SR30 helicopter, acquired in 2008 when only a few police departments in the country were trying out unmanned aircraft. The gas-powered SR30 is complex and difficult to maintain, and Montgomery and his team had constant trouble with it.

“We were at the cutting edge—actually the bleeding edge,” says Montgomery. “We had to learn as we went along. Basically, we picked the wrong platform.” The five-foot-long, 15-pound helicopter was totalled in a crash last November, and Montgomery hasn’t replaced it.

In 2012, Congress passed legislation that requires the FAA to simplify the COA process for public agencies in the near-term, and to allow broad public and commercial use of unmanned aircraft by 2015. (Last February, the Transportation department’s inspector general told a Congressional panel that the agency would not meet the 2015 deadline.) The current 18-page COA application is preceded by a questionnaire that strays from the certificate’s actual requirements—for example, by asking whether any of the potential operators has a pilot’s license (which is not required to operate a UAV). The FAA also requires that even a minor software update be cleared through the COA office, and that the operating agency designate every possible emergency landing site in its jurisdictional area (in Mesa County’s case, about 3,300 square miles).

A new set of rules about small UAVs (under 55 pounds) is due out this year, and the FAA is working with the Department of Justice on a new course to certify public safety UAV pilots specifically. But overall, the agency has been slow in taking steps to meet the growing need for drone regulation. According to Miller, the delay could be costly.

“This process that the FAA wants to be a risk-mitigating process creates more risk, in the sense that there’s no regulation,” he says. If rules are too slow to come out, he adds, public agencies—and private citizens—will fly anyway. “The FAA is driving users into a non-compliant culture.”

Miller suspects the agency is buying time, trying to hold back the wave of unmanned fliers while officials gather their thoughts about the mammoth task of integrating what could be tens of thousands of tiny aircraft into the national airspace system. But that other sticky issue, privacy, may also be causing delays.

More than a few Americans and their representatives in Washington have begun to ask what unmanned aircraft are capable of, and in particular whether they could violate Constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. In terms of government use of UAV technology, that concern is aimed squarely at law enforcement.

“This isn’t even necessarily about unmanned aircraft—this is also about trust,” says Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an advocacy and lobbying group. “I think the public would be okay if an unmanned aircraft was in a fire truck, but when you put it in a police car, then people get a little bit more worried.”

All but seven states have passed or are considering legislation that addresses the use of UAVs, from limiting who can use the aircraft for surveillance to outlawing weaponized drones, and much of the legislation is designed to curb privacy abuses by law enforcement agencies. While Colorado has yet to propose any such laws, Miller says he would rather see more stringent protection of privacy itself, rather than laws that stigmatize UAV technology.

“The Constitution does not care what kind of tool you use,” he says. He points out that police need a warrant to gather information in areas where people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as an enclosed back yard, even if the surveillance method is an unmanned aircraft. While the widespread use of UAVs can help drive the discussion of how to protect privacy, he says, the technology isn’t inherently invasive.

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