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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The American Civil Liberties Union, however, published an article last year arguing that drones are different from other surveillance tools. They’re fairly cheap, which means law enforcement can acquire them relatively easily. They’re also small and quiet—people being watched by a 900-horsepower manned helicopter know it, but the tiny Draganflyer is another story. The ACLU is recommending tight restrictions on how drones and the information they collect can be used.

The FAA is working on integrating UAVs “as quickly as [it] can,” says spokesman Les Dorr, adding that the need to address privacy concerns and promote economic growth is part of what’s slowing the agency down.

Back at the landslide, the Falcon’s flight plan is veering a little too close to bluffs topped by sheer rock cliffs. Miser asks Miller to take control of the aircraft and hands him a PlayStation 2 controller with masking tape labeling the different inputs. Miller flies the Falcon in a holding pattern while Miser drags the waypoints on his computer screen to a safer distance. Then he switches the Falcon back to autopilot mode while Miller keeps his eyes on it. The airplane is aimed at one of the cliffs, but Miser seems to think he’s rearranged the waypoints properly.

“You need to turn left,” Miller says. He thinks Miser should pick up the controller and divert the Falcon. His tone is perhaps a bit too relaxed. “Turn left.”

A second later the Falcon crosses in front of the cliff edge. Everyone knows what’s about to happen, but no one says anything. At its cruising speed, 30 mph, the Falcon slams nose-first into the cliff. The wings collapse, and as the remains of the airplane crumple to the foot of the rock wall, the bright orange parachute spurts out and half-opens.

The crash is anticlimactic—no fireball or thunderous noise. It looks about the way you’d expect, more or less like a toy airplane hitting a wall.

Miser scrambles up the slope to the wreckage. While it has come apart, most of the airplane is undamaged. The bracket that joins the wings to the fuselage is broken, as is some of the circuitry in the drone’s brain, but the wings are fine and the propeller is intact. The rounded metal spinner at the nose shows only a small dent.

Miser says repairs will take about a day and cost maybe $400. Eager to point out the soundness of his product, he takes full responsibility. “The airplane did exactly what it was supposed to do,” he huffs. “That was pure user error.”

He should have trusted his spotter more, he says, though he points out that Miller could have been a little more assertive with his advice. In theory, though, the spotter system works—and had the onboard video feed been working, Miser himself would have seen the cliff coming. Most importantly, Miller says, had they been flying on police business, especially had the Falcon been near anyone who could get hurt, a crash never would have happened. Without everything in working order, they simply wouldn’t have flown, or they would have flown a backup aircraft. Miser knew the consequences when he took the risk, and, ever the engineer, he chalks the crash up to a learning experience. “That’s why you don’t fly without video,” he advises no one in particular.

“The whole concept of a crash in aviation as we know it is there is usually loss of life or significant injury, and it’s very expensive,” says Miller. A failure with unmanned aircraft of this size, he says, is simply not a big deal. “If the FAA can’t accept that, it’ll be a hindrance—not just to law enforcement, but to everybody.”

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